By Katie Polglase, Gianluca Mezzofiore and Lauren Kent, CNN
As protesters took to the streets of Iran following the death in detention of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman apprehended for apparently not wearing her hijab properly, videos of the uprising began to flood the internet.
Clips of students tearing up pictures of Iran’s Supreme Leader in northern Iran. Photos of women removing their hijab in Iran’s capital, Tehran. Videos of protesters marching down the streets of the capital with their fists in the air.
The outpouring of anger following Amini’s death was visible to the world.
But then it went dark as WhatsApp, Signal, Viber, Skype, and even Instagram, one of the last remaining social media apps to be usable, were blocked.
Internet shutdowns aren’t new in Iran, often accompanying periods of unrest and dissent. The most severe crackdown was in 2019, during which more than 100 protesters were killed and the internet was cut off for 12 days, according to Amnesty International.
Activists in Iran say that the primary purpose of the shutdowns is to disrupt communication among people organizing protests on the ground and stifle dissent.
“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,” Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at human rights organization Miaan Group, told CNN.
As a result of these frequent blackouts, tech-savvy Iranians have learned increasingly to rely on more advanced tools like VPNs or Tor network as workarounds to stay connected. But even these are now being restricted by authorities and are therefore far from reliable. “I can hardly get in touch with my friends because we can’t always get connected to VPNs,” 22-year-old Ali, whose name CNN changed because he fears for his safety, told CNN via an encrypted ProtonMail conversation.
A VPN, or virtual private network, encrypts the user’s traffic and connects it to a remote server, protecting the data and activity; Tor is an open-source network which allows anonymous web browsing; ProtonMail is an end-to-end encrypted email service.
“This time they are not just limiting the internet,” Ali added. “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!”
Another user, 18-year-old Nima, whose name CNN changed because he fears for his safety, told CNN there were no messaging apps that work in Iran right now without using VPNs, “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,” he said.
In comparison to the full shutdown in 2019, this blackout is more targeted and sophisticated, according to Alp Toker, director of international technology platform NetBlocks, which tracked three different methods — internet outages, mobile service disruptions, and the ban on Instagram and WhatsApp — that Iranian authorities have used to restrict online communications.
“You have an environment that makes it very difficult for people to speak out to express discontent about the government in any form,” he told CNN.
However, the challenges Iranians face come not just from their own regime but from the international community as well, including governments and tech companies.
The Biden administration last month expanded its general license to Iran to “support the free flow of information” and authorize American tech companies to provide people inside the country access to certain tools that help them communicate with each other amid one of the worst internet shutdowns in history in Iran for breadth and scope. On Monday, President Biden said the US was making it easier for Iranians to access the internet, “including through facilitating greater access to secure, outside platforms and services.”
While digital activists and Iranian digital natives welcome these moves, they fear they may not be enough to address the issues average Iranians face every day while attempting to connect to the internet.
‘Better late than never’
CNN has spoken with digital rights activists, tech experts and Iranian internet users who spoke out about the unintended consequences of US sanctions. Exemptions to tech sanctions were introduced in 2013 but failed to go far enough, activists say. The new exemptions weren’t introduced until September 23.
“It has been almost 10 years that Iranians have had to wait for this update in the license. 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,” said Mahsa Alimardani, senior internet researcher at Article 19, a freedom of expression organization.
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 said.
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, Rashidi 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.
Iranian internet users who spoke to CNN shared the same frustration. “I gotta complain, why do tech companies […] restrict Iranian people? They are targeting directly people not the government,” said Ali, who says he’s posting on social media “to inform people about the different ways they can connect to the internet in this hard censorship because I believe it’s a human right.”
Not only has the Iranian government blocked the Apple Store and Google Play — making it impossible for users to access tools that could circumvent the blackout — but activists in Iran say they are unable to upload their own apps for wider distribution.
CNN approached Apple for a comment but had not received a statement by the time of publication.
In a statement to CNN, Google said: “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.”
When asked about the inability of Iranian app developers to upload their own apps to Google Play Store, Google said the new US sanction exemptions do “not extend to accepting or hosting Iranian-origin apps.”
Google also recently announced it would make more of its tools available, including more VPNs and location sharing on Google apps, in the light of updated US sanctions.
‘A new sadness, anger and despair’
But digital activists Alimardani and Rashidi call this “low-hanging fruit,” saying 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,” Alimardani said.
Asked why other Google services, such as Google Classroom, Google Analytics, Google Developers, Google chat, remain inaccessible, including many services accessible via the Google Play Store, the company replied: “Ongoing legal or technical barriers may block the provision of certain services, but we are exploring whether additional products might be made available.”
Alimardani and Rashidi point favorably to GitHub, a popular code hosting platform for IT developers, which last year secured a license from the US government to offer its services in Iran.
CNN contacted the Iranian government for comment but received no reply at the time of publication.
While more people inside Iran now rely on the Tor browser, which has seen a spike in users since the start of the protests, a sense of defiance is spreading among Iranian digital natives.
“We suffered a lot from the Islamic Republic for many years. We were hurt in different ways,” said 30-year-old Reza, whose name CNN changed because he fears for his safety.
“But the recent tragedy gave us a new sadness, anger and despair that we cannot stop thinking about it, and the way the Islamic Republic responded and the future of us and our loved ones.
“If we don’t react and stand up against oppression, we are either a bad person or a stupid person.”
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