Iranians Navigate Internet Blackout Following Human Rights Protests In Response To Death Of...

Following the death in detention of Mahsa Amino, a 22-year-old woman apprehended by morality police for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly, activists have flooded the streets in Iran to protest the human rights violations and violence against women in the nation. The US is now hoping to offer its services following a nationwide internet blackout, which activists believe is “better late than never.” 

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The protests following the death of Mahsa Amini in Iran have spread greatly online via social media and news outlets. Numerous clips of students and activists alike tearing up pictures of Iran’s Supreme leader, women removing their hijab in Iran’s capital, and large crowds of protesters marching through the streets demanding change have spread throughout the entire world. 

Soon after the world was able to witness the large call to action occuring in Iran, WhatsApp, Signal, Viber, Skype, and Instagram were blocked throughout the nation, preventing citizens from spreading pictures and videos from the protests. 

Activists throughout Iran state that the main purpose for these shutdowns is to “disrupt communication among people organizing protests on the ground and stifle dissent,” according to Amir Rashidi, the director of digital rights and security at Miaan Group, a human rights organization.

“They don’t want you to be able to communicate with your friends, with your family, with your colleagues, because simply if you’re going to basically create a group […] you’re going to be more effective in the way that you are doing protest.”

Iranians have learned some techniques to surpass these internet blackouts through the use of VPNs and other tools that can work around the blocked servers to stay connected with others. A VPN, virtual private network, encrypts user traffic to connect to more remote servers, protecting the users data and activity. 

“This time they are not just limiting the internet. They have removed WhatsApp and Instagram from local app stores, they have blocked our connection to Google Play store and App Store so we can’t download any VPN or social media apps […] they do this so protesters can’t connect to each other and can’t share news on social media, the high censorship starts from 4pm to 11:59pm, sometimes we have issues even for calling each other!” one 22-year-old activist told CNN

Another anonymous user told CNN that VPN’s are the only viable resource Iranians have currently, but even those are becoming more difficult to navigate: “The government is blocking VPNs right now, one by one. Our accessibility is getting limited each day. We are hardly able to know about the protests and the victims in my country. You have an environment that makes it very difficult for people to speak out to express discontent about the government in any form.”

The Biden Administration expanded its general license to Iran last month to “support the flow of information and authorize American tech companies to provide people inside the country access to certain tools that help them communicate with one another,” a move that digital activists in Iran appreciate, but are skeptical about due to the issues the average citizen of Iran face when it comes to internet connection. 

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“It’s been almost 10 years that Iranians have had to wait for the update in the license that the Biden Administration just implemented. Better late than never, it has been a belated action by the US government, and so there has been a lot of harm done in the interim.”

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Mahsa Alimardani, senior internet researcher at Article 19, a freedom of expression organization, went on to explain that the initial tech sanctions from the US were introduced in 2013, but never went far enough, and only just this past month were updated. 

“US sanctions unwittingly accelerated Iran’s development of an internal network, the National Information Network project, ironically making it cheaper and easier for Iran’s government to shut off the internet without disrupting government operations such as banks, financial systems and hospitals,” Rashidi stated. 

“These sanctions also pushed tech companies to over-comply or withdraw entirely from Iran, leaving Iranians with no alternative but to use government-controlled domestic servers at heightened personal risk in terms of safety, privacy and security,” he added.

“What US sanctions have done on one level is give the government basically an excuse to further nationalize and isolate Iran’s internet,” Alimardani said.

Google recently released a statement regarding their role in providing internet to the nation: “Google has allowed users in Iran to access free, publicly available services related to communications and/or sharing of informational materials. This includes products like Google Search, free consumer Gmail, Google Maps and YouTube. It is important to note that, although Google can decide to make these services available, we cannot ensure they are accessible within Iran.”

In response,  Alimardani said: “Google needs to do more. Google Cloud Platform, Google App Engine, they have been very important in terms of internet infrastructure, helping Iranian technologists right now. So that really needs to be made available.”