As protesters took to the streets of Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested for apparently not wearing her hijab properly, videos of the uprising began to flood the internet.
Clip of students tearing up pictures of Ayatollah in northern Iran. Photos of women removing their hijab in Iran’s capital, Tehran. Video of protesters marching through the streets of the capital with their fists in the air.
The outpouring of anger after 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 social media apps left to use, were blocked.
Internet outages are nothing new in Iran, often accompanying periods of unrest and strife. The most severe crackdown was in 2019, during which more than 100 protesters were killed and the internet went down for 12 days, according to Amnesty International.
Activists in Iran say the holiday’s primary purpose is to disrupt communication between people protesting 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 just if you’re going to basically create a team […] you will be more effective in the way you protest,” Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at the human rights group Miaan Group, told CNN.
As a result of these frequent power outages, tech-savvy Iranians have increasingly learned to rely on more advanced tools like VPNs or the Tor network as solutions to stay connected. But even these are now restricted by the authorities and are therefore not at all reliable. “I can hardly get in touch with my friends because we can’t always connect with a VPN,” 22-year-old Ali, whose name has been changed to CNN out of fear for his safety, told CNN in an encrypted ProtonMail chat.
A VPN, or virtual private network, encrypts a user’s traffic and connects them to a remote server, protecting data and activity. Tor is an open source network that enables anonymous web browsing. ProtonMail is an end-to-end encrypted mail service.
“This time they’re not just throttling the internet,” Ali added. “They’ve removed WhatsApp and Instagram from local app stores, blocked our connection to Google Play store and App Store so we can’t download VPN or social media apps […] they make it so protesters can’t connect with each other and can’t share news on social media, high censorship starts from 16:00 to 23:59, sometimes we have problems even calling each other to the other!”.
Another user, 18-year-old Nima, whose name has been changed by CNN out of fear for his safety, told CNN that there are no messaging apps operating in Iran right now without using a VPN, “The government is blocking VPNs right now, one by one . Our accessibility is limited daily. We can hardly know about the protests and casualties in my country,” he said.
Compared to the complete blackout in 2019, this blackout is more targeted and sophisticated, according to Alp Toker, director of international technology platform NetBlocks, which identified three different methods – internet blackouts, mobile service blackouts and the ban of Instagram and WhatsApp – which Iranian authorities have used to restrict online communications.
“You have an environment that makes it very difficult for people to speak out to express their dissatisfaction with the government in any form,” he told CNN.
However, the challenges facing the Iranians come not only from their own regime but also from the international community, including governments and technology companies.
The Biden administration last month extended its blanket authorization to Iran to “support the free flow of information” and authorize US technology companies to give people inside the country access to certain tools that help them communicate with each other amid a of the worst internet shutdowns in history in Iran for breadth and scope.
While digital activists and Iranian digital natives welcome these moves, they fear they may not be enough to address the daily problems that average Iranians face while trying to get online.
CNN spoke with digital rights activists, technology experts and Iranian netizens who spoke about the unintended consequences of US sanctions. Exemptions from technology sanctions were introduced in 2013 but have failed to go far enough, activists say. The new exemptions were only introduced on 23 September.
“It has been almost 10 years that Iranians have had to wait for this update on the permit. Better late than never, it was a belated action by the US government. And so a lot of damage has been done in the interim,” said Mahsa Alimardani, senior internet researcher at Article 19, a free-speech organization.
US sanctions inadvertently accelerated Iran’s development of an internal network, the National Intelligence Network project, making it ironically cheaper and easier for the Iranian government to shut down the internet without disrupting government functions such as banks, financial systems and hospitals. Rashidi said.
These sanctions have also pushed tech companies to over-comply or pull out of Iran altogether, leaving Iranians with no alternative but to use domestic government-controlled servers at increased personal risk in terms of security, privacy and security. Rashidi added.
“What the US sanctions have done at one level is give the government basically an excuse to further nationalize and isolate Iran’s internet,” Alimardani said.
Iranian netizens who spoke to CNN shared the same frustration. “I have to complain, because tech companies […] restrain the Iranian people? They’re directly targeting people, not the government,” said Ali, who says he posts on social media “to let people know about the different ways they can go online in this harsh censorship because I think it’s 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 cannot upload their own apps for wider distribution.
CNN reached out to Apple for 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 communication and/or information sharing. This includes products like Google Search, free Gmail for consumers, Google Maps and YouTube. It is important to note that although Google may decide to make these services available, we cannot ensure that they are accessible within Iran.”
When asked about the inability of Iranian app developers to upload their own apps to the Google Play Store, Google said the new exemptions from US sanctions “do not extend to accepting or hosting apps of Iranian origin.”
Google too recently announced would make more of its tools available, including more VPNs and location sharing in Google apps, in light of the updated US sanctions.
But digital activists Alimardani and Rashidi call this “low-hanging fruit,” saying Google needs to do more. “Google Cloud Platform, Google App Engine, have been very important in terms of Internet infrastructure, helping Iranian technologists at this time. This 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 through the Google Play Store, the company replied: “Ongoing legal or technical obstacles may prevent some services, but we are investigating whether additional products may be available.”
Alimardani and Rashidi point favorably to GitHub, a popular code hosting platform for IT developers, which last year secured permission from the US government to offer its services in Iran.
Signal, the encrypted messaging network, also offers guidance to people in Iran and offers help to anyone who can host proxy server and instant download.
CNN reached out to the US and Iranian governments for comment, but did not receive a response at the time of publication.
While more people in Iran now rely on the Tor browser, which has seen a surge in users since the protests began, a sense of disdain is spreading among Iran’s digital natives.
“We suffered a lot from the Islamic Republic for many years. We were hurt in different ways,” said Reza, 30, whose name was changed to CNN out of fear for his safety.
“But the recent tragedy has given us a new sadness, anger and despair that we can’t stop thinking about it and how the Islamic Republic responded and our future and that of our loved ones.
“If we don’t react and resist oppression, we are either a bad person or a stupid person.