Iran steps up internet crackdown one year after Mahsa Amini death

A woman attends a protest at Catalunya square in support of Iranian women and against the death of Mahsa Amini in Barcelona, Spain October 4, 2022. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

A woman attends a protest at Catalunya square in support of Iranian women and against the death of Mahsa Amini in Barcelona, Spain October 4, 2022. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

What’s the context?

One year after nationwide protests erupted in Iran, people suffer rolling internet blackouts, but create an online freedom community to fight for digital rights

  • Iran blocks sites, apps, imposes "digital curfews"
  • Internet shutdowns cost economy dearly
  • Authorities seek full control of internet in Iran

One year after young Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini died in police custody while under arrest for improper hijab, Iran has stepped up internet restrictions to stop a resurgence of the widespread mass protests that swept the Islamic Republic last year.

Ahead of the Sept. 16 anniversary of Amini's death, days before her 22nd birthday, government opponents say Iran is conducting a wide-ranging crackdown to stifle possible dissent.

At least 22,000 were arrested in the protests and seven people executed. The demonstrations - the biggest and most widespread since the Islamic Republic was founded in 1979 - were sparked after images spread on social media of Amini lying unconscious in a hospital bed following her arrest.

Now Iran is doing everything it can to prevent the same thing happening again, rights groups and activists say.

As well as blocking thousands of websites, Iran regularly shuts down the internet altogether, or imposes "digital curfews" - stopping access in the evening when protests are more likely. It also blocks messaging apps and has criminalised virtual private networks (VPNs) used to get around the curbs.

Iran ranked third globally in the number of times it shut down the internet last year, according to digital rights group Access Now.

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This included shutting down mobile networks, both nationally and in targeted areas, while also blocking access to Instagram and WhatsApp, the only two major platforms not already subject to outright bans, Access Now said.

"Internet shutdowns violate human rights," said Access Now policy and advocacy manager Marwa Fatafta. "They are a disproportionate and a draconian attack on human rights, implemented by governments in order to keep people in the dark, stop information flows, hide atrocities and human rights abuses, and consequently shield authorities from accountability."

Minorities targeted

Internet access has never been as bad in Iran, said Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at Miaan, a Texas-based group that advocates for human rights in Iran.

That is true especially, he said, in regions where most belong to one of Iran's ethnic and religious minorities, which saw some of the most virulent protests and violent crackdowns.

These include Kurdistan in the west, where Amini lived and was buried, Khuzestan in the southwest, home to many Iranian Arabs, and the province of Sistan and Baluchistan in the southeast, where many belong to the Baluch ethnic minority.

Rights groups say police fired from rooftops near the main mosque in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan, and killed up to 96 people as they protested after Friday prayers on Sept. 30 last year. But weekly protests have continued.

"Authorities have been shutting down the internet every week during Friday prayers in Sistan and Baluchistan and its capital Zahedan at a specific time for a year," Rashidi told Context.

Internet shutdowns have economic cost

Already struggling with international sanctions, high inflation and unemployment, internet shutdowns cost Iran an additional $773 million last year, digital privacy research group TOP10VPN estimated. 

The impact is felt by small businesses across the country.

"We haven't had one day without the internet causing some sort of problem. It's impossible to have a normal life in these conditions," said Saeed Souzangar, who said he was struggling to keep his Tehran technology company afloat.

"I had to sell my house and my car just to keep the office lights on," he said.

VPNs are vital for Iranians to connect to social media and communications apps. A member of parliament said last month that around 80% of Iranians used VPNs to bypass censorship.

A 30-year-old web designer in Tehran said not having access to VPNs would have serious financial consequences. Without them, she is unable to work or study, she said. 

"It would mean more isolation, more living in darkness," said the woman, who declined to be named.

'Militarising the internet

Despite the cost, Iranian authorities have called for yet tougher measures. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all matters in Iran, in June called for the judiciary to crack down harder on online dissent.

Meanwhile, Communications Minister Issa Zarepour last month said the country had "twice" the internet access it needed. The ministry did not respond to a request for comment. 

Iran's hardline government introduced a bill to parliament in 2021 that would effectively hand over control of the internet to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which reports directly to the supreme leader, and criminalise the use of VPNs.

Facing opposition from some within parliament and a public backlash, the User Protection Bill has languished in the assembly, but opposition groups say hardliners have bypassed parliament and brought in most elements of the bill anyway.

An as-yet unpublished report by Miaan said the IRGC was seeking to gain absolute control over the internet in Iran.

"Infractions will be dealt with by the military and the internet will become untouchable," Rashidi said.

Internet freedom community

Despite the risks, some in Iran have tried to fight back. Rashidi said the internet crackdown had given rise to a digital rights community including tech specialists, journalists, lawyers and civil society members seeking to limit the changes.

"It's a real thing and they are doing real work," he said.

The internet freedom community is viewed as a threat by Iranian authorities as it endangered state control of what information is consumed by the public, said Simin Kargar, a fellow at Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.

"We have had tech activists go to jail for teaching people about circumvention tools and privacy preservation online," Kargar said from Washington.

Security forces arrested prominent digital rights advocate Amir Mirmirani, better known by his online name Jadi, and several others in October for protesting internet shutdowns. Jadi said in February he had been released from prison.

Context spoke to several activists inside Iran who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of reprisals.

They said authorities had been shutting down the internet and employing filters and surveillance, as well as slowing down internet speeds to suppress opposition narratives on social media and messaging applications. 

But Iranian internet freedom activists have nevertheless gathered signatures for online petitions inside Iran to stop the Internet User Protection bill officially passing through parliament.

"I'm not optimistic that the government will loosen its internet restrictions, but if we don't fight, if we don't try, things will get even worse," said one activist.

"Even though the bill is being implemented for all intents and purposes, at least the one million signatures the petition gathered show the world that Iranians are vehemently against it," Rashidi said.

Another activist in Iran campaigning against restrictions said policies restricting internet access were to be expected given the Islamic Republic's human rights record, but said it was disappointing the outside world did not seem to care.

"I wish someone out there would hear our voice and do something," said the source.

(Reporting by Sanam Mahoozi, Editing by Jon Hemming.)

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