One of Iran’s biggest internet blackouts means details about the impact of recent protests over fuel price hikes remains sketchy.
NetBlocks corroborated reports in Iranian media on Thursday that internet had been partly reinstated, “some connectivity is being restored, although only partially, national connectivity has risen further to 10%”.
On Tuesday, Amnesty International said 100 protesters have been killed in 21 cities since last week’s protests.
There has been no official confirmation and Tehran has called the figures “fabricated”.
Experts say the lack of detail emerging about the protests is because the internet has been shut off in much of Iran as authorities attempt to stop people mobilising.
Iran’s judiciary spokesman, Gholamhossein Esmaili, said calm had been restored but some social media videos posted in defiance of an internet block showed protests continued in several cities on Monday night and a heavy presence of security forces in streets.
UN human rights spokesman Rupert Colville has called on authorities in Iran to restore the internet service cut off since Saturday, and uphold the demonstrators’ rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
Why did Iranians protest?
The struggle of ordinary Iranians to make ends meet has become harder since last year when President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers and reimposed sanctions on the country.
Combined with the rising inflation, growing unemployment, a slump in the rial and state corruption, Washington’s “maximum pressure” has caused Iran’s economy to deteriorate.
The government said the gasoline price rises of as much as 50% aim to raise around $2.55 billion (€2.30 bn) a year for extra subsidies to 18 million families struggling on low incomes. The monthly cash payments are set at just 550,000 rials (€4.01) per person.
This was arguably ‘largest internet shutdown’ in Iran
Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Oracle’s Internet Intelligence team, noted on Twitter: “Unlike previous efforts at censorship and throttling, Iran is experiencing a multi-day wholesale disconnect for much of its population – arguably the largest such event ever for Iran.”
Whilst NetBlocks similarly affirmed reports on Tuesday: “the last remaining networks are now being cut and connectivity to the outside world has fallen further to 4% of normal levels”.
The international community and Iranians abroad have condemned the shutdown, with the UN’s David Kaye asking on Twitter: “What’s being hidden from Iranians and the world?”
How is the shutdown affecting families?
With reports of violence on the street increasing, a further concern is shouldered by those with families in Iran.
Sina Toossi, a research associate at the National Iranian American Council (NIA Council), told Euronews: “Unfortunately for us Iranian Americans, and the Iranian community abroad, it’s been immensely difficult to contact our loved ones back home. Usually, I use WhatsApp / Skype / Viber, all of these apps we can’t access right now. It’s very disconcerting that we have lost communication with our loved ones in the past few days’’
Many are questioning why this internet outage has been so widespread and devastating.
Amir Rashidi, an Iran internet security and digital rights researcher, who also works for the Center for Human Rights Iran, told Euronews “the reasons are twofold”.
Iran’s domestic internet network
“The Iranian government has realised they need to have control over the Internet, otherwise people can mobilise themselves, they have invested a lot in creating a local network National Information Network (NIN),” he said.
“Iran encouraged users and businesses to move services and servers inside Iran and use its national infrastructure.”
The internet is the main platform and communication tool for Iranians to share their thoughts with each other and the world. With more platforms migrating to NIN, Iranians turned to circumvention tools and VPNs to access information, read about the protests, and communicate with one another.
Rashidi said: “Since the US started their maximum pressure campaign, they imposed more pressures on Iran, Iranians weren’t able to use international platforms such as Amazon Cloud Web Services, Google Cloud, Github.”
US tech sanctions, “the biggest gift” to the Iranian government?
“US sanctions are further enabling the Iranian government’s internet blackout,” Toossi said.
“We’ve seen an overcompliance with US sanctions by US tech companies. Google Cloud Services, Amazon Web Services, platforms that many Iranians use to access private virtual networks to circumvent filtering in Iran, in recent months, these companies have banned Iranians from their services directly citing US sanctions.”
Nat Friedman, CEO of GitHub, wrote on Twitter in July: “It is painful for me to hear how trade restrictions have hurt people… to comply with US sanctions, we, unfortunately, had to implement new restrictions on private and paid accounts in Iran, Syria, and Crimea.’’
Amongst many others like Slack, these platforms have been forced to migrate off of these services onto Iran’s NIN, Toossi told Euronews: “This has allowed the Iranian government to be remarkably successful” in restricting internet access to a lot of ordinary users.”
Rashidi concludes: “These sanctions were the biggest gift anyone could give the Iranian government.”
How can ordinary Iranians be protected?
It has long been levelled that Iranian civilians bear the brunt of western-imposed sanctions in terms of medicine and food shortages and money problems.
The US Department of the Treasury says sanctions target the “Iranian regime”, not ordinary individuals.
In July, the US Department of State addressed these accusations in a video featuring US Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook.
“The United States does not sanction hardware, software or services related to personal communications,” Hook said, “Unlike your regime, we believe strongly in the free flow of communication and information.”
However, Toossi notes: “The general license in US law, aimed at protecting ordinary Iranians and allowing them to circumvent government censors … is five year-olds and it’s out of date”.
Amongst others, the National Iranian American Council is calling for a revamp of General License D-1, which was issued in 2014.
Toossi says, “If the Trump administration is sincere about helping Iranian people, they need to issue a new rule to this license, that expands the scope, and makes the necessary revisions.”
“At this point, many companies, out of a fear being fined and pressured by the US government for violating sanctions – are over complying with the license”.
President of NIA Council, Jamal Abdi wrote on Twitter, “Iranians are vulnerable to blackouts & abuse by Iran’s government’’.
“On the one hand, the Trump administration’s aggressive hostile policies and maximum pressure campaign is impoverishing Iranian people and setting the two countries up for war” Toossi tells Euronews.
“On the other hand, the repressive state, empowered hardliners in Iran who are cracking down, in light of gas price hike and suppression, is leading to more destructive situation internally”.
“When we talk about ingredients for peaceful democratic change and empowering Iranian people, these collectively punishing sanctions and scenario that has been created – this isn’t the path to democratic change.’
With #internet4iran trending, a petition has now been launched asking the White House to help reinstate internet to the Iranian people.
Rashidi noted: “The internet is so important, it’s the only place people can express themselves, without fear of being arrested, of course, some have been arrested for online activity, but you can be anonymous, if you know how to protect yourself, you can express your opinion and no one can find you.”
Twitter has also become a platform on which ordinary Iranians can voice their concerns to people of authority.
“Officials, ministers, Supreme Leaders, politicians, low-level city councillors are all on Twitter, Iranian people on Twitter try to keep them accountable and responsible, these are the tools people can use to pursue their request for more freedom and democracy for Iran’’.