Sweeping internet outages in Iran can have deadly consequences

The people of Iran had taken to the streets to protest after fuel prices rose by up to 300% overnight. The New York Times reported at the time that “between 180 and 450 people, and possibly more,” were killed during four days of violence, with thousands more injured and imprisoned, much of it while the country was plunged into digital darkness. Reuters, in December 2019, reported that 1,500 people were killed during a two-week period of unrest.
Now, some worry that history could repeat itself amid renewed civil unrest. Protesters have flooded the streets in recent days following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, while in custody by Tehran’s morality police. Iranian officials claimed she suffered a heart attack, but her family said she had no pre-existing heart condition. “I have no idea what they did to her,” her father, Amjad Amini, told BBC Persia. “Everything is a lie.”

Mobile networks are largely shut down, according to Netblocks. And Meta has confirmed that Iranians are having trouble accessing some of its apps, including WhatsApp and Instagram. While not the total internet shutdown of 2019, tech experts say they’re seeing a similar pattern.

“I don’t think there’s anything that would lead us to believe this is random,” said Doug Madory, director of web analytics at network intelligence firm Kentik, Inc. video sharing and communicating with the outside world’.

Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, said “the impact of these disruptions cannot be overstated.” Earlier this week, Netblocks he said the Iranian people are now subject to the “toughest internet restrictions since the massacre of November 2019”.
People protest against the increase in the price of natural gas, on a highway in Tehran, Iran, November 16, 2019.

Losing internet connection has become a “central fear etched in the minds of Iranians, especially after 2019,” Toker said. “One of the most disturbing things about the information blackout is that we don’t even have an accurate death toll,” he added. “Because what’s happening, in terms of human rights abuses, abuses of power are becoming much more difficult to document, record and record.”

Human rights groups say at least eight people have been killed in the protests so far and are calling on the international community — and the tech sector, in particular — to do more to support the Iranian people. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday announced steps the US government has taken to clear some sanctions-related red tape and allow US technology companies to help the people of Iran access digital tools.

“We will help ensure that the Iranian people are not left isolated and in the dark,” Blinken said. “This is a concrete step in providing meaningful support to Iranians who demand that their basic rights be respected.”

Time can be of the essence. While the current internet outage “isn’t as severe as it was in November 2019,” Madory said, there are concerns that it could eventually be. “It’s still early – it’s too early to know whether this will be overcome or not.”

The wide scale of the blackout leaves few options for bypassing

Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at human rights group Miaan Group, runs a resource center to help those in Iran deal with internet outages. Rashidi, a software developer who left Iran more than a decade ago, said he and his team help provide Iranians inside the country with technology tools, risk analysis guidance and training so they can stay connected to each other. even when the internet has been shut down by the government.

He believes Iranian officials are currently following a familiar playbook. “First,” he said, “they shut down mobile data, and that’s sophisticated enough to shut down even in a certain neighborhood.” If the protests continue to grow, he said, “then they will begin to expand the Internet shutdown, step by step.” Eventually, he said, “they completely shut down and shut down everything.”

However, even as it stands now, the options for bypassing Internet service outages are limited.

Dozens of people hold a demonstration to protest the death of a 22-year-old woman in custody in Tehran, Iran, on September 21, 2022.

“So far, they’re shutting down mobile data and making it really difficult to work with a fixed connection at home,” Rashidi told CNN Business. “They’re so slow, with a lot of throttle, so it’s hard to work on the stationary as well.”

As Madory puts it: “If your phone doesn’t have cellular service, cellular data, you can’t do it.”

Netblocks’ Toker said the methods of throttling and disrupting the Internet are so varied that even more advanced tools to deal with power outages are becoming more difficult to use. For those still on landline connections, “a VPN or the Tor network can be useful,” Toker added. “Although these are also restricted by the authorities, so they are far from reliable.”

“The only real option during a total disconnection is to document things offline in the hope that when you’re back online, you can flag them and distribute them, such as evidence of human rights abuses,” Toker said. .

Some are now calling on the tech industry to do more to help.

For example, WhatsApp which belongs to the transport medium, has he said “will do anything within our technical capabilities to keep our service running.” Rashidi praised Meta for “being helpful,” but called on international technology companies and organizations to do more to reach out directly to the Iranian people and help them maintain access to their rights.
Encrypted messaging app Signal is asking for the public’s help in building “a proxy server that will allow people in Iran to connect to Signal” amid power outages.

Rashidi also criticized billionaire Elon Musk, who recently tweeted that his satellite broadband service, Starlink, would seek an exemption from sanctions to provide internet to the country. “I know what’s realistic and what’s not realistic, and I don’t think Elon Musk is serious,” Rashidi said.

Despite the fear currently gripping his home country amid protests and internet blackouts, Rashidi does see reason for hope. She feels that the spirit of these protests, which are “led by women”, is different from the unrest in the past.

“I see more people are united,” he said. “Whatever the outcome of these protests, we are moving into a new chapter of Iran.”

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