When Iranian authorities took the internet down in 2019 amid anti-government protests, the international community struggled to follow the civil carnage that followed.
The Iranian people had taken to the streets to protest after fuel prices soared 300% overnight. The New York Times reported at the time that “between 180 and 450 people, and possibly more”, had been killed in four days of violence, with thousands more injured and detained, most while the country was in lockdown. immersed in digital darkness. Reuters in December 2019 reported that 1,500 people had been killed during a two-week period of unrest.
Now, a story of worry may be repeating itself amid renewed civil unrest. Protesters have flooded the streets in recent days after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died while in the custody of Tehran vice police. Iranian officials claimed she had a heart attack, but her family said she had no pre-existing heart conditions. “I have no idea what they did to her,” her father, Amjad Amini, told BBC Persia. “Everything is a lie.”
Mobile networks have been largely shut down, according to internet watchdog Netblocks. And Meta confirmed that Iranians are having trouble accessing some of its apps, including WhatsApp and Instagram. While this isn’t a complete internet shutdown in 2019, tech experts say they’re seeing a similar trend.
“I don’t think there’s anything that would make us think it was accidental,” said Doug Madory, director of internet analytics at network intelligence firm Kentik, Inc. “My understanding given the context, the goal was to prevent people from sharing videos and communicating with the outside world.
Alp Toker, the director of Netblocks, said “the impacts of these disruptions cannot be overstated.” Earlier this week, Netblocks said the Iranian people are now subject to the “toughest internet restrictions since the November 2019 massacre”.
The loss of internet connectivity has become a “central fear that is etched in the minds of Iranians, especially after 2019”, Toker said. “One of the most alarming things about the information blackout is that we don’t even have an accurate death toll,” he added. “Because what is happening, in terms of human rights abuses, abuses of power becomes much more difficult to document, collect 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. On Friday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced steps the US government is taking to eliminate some sanctions-related red tape and allow US tech companies to help the Iranian people gain access to digital tools.
“(W)e will help ensure that the Iranian people are not isolated and in the dark,” Blinken said. “This is a concrete step to provide meaningful support to Iranians demanding that their basic rights be respected.”
Time can be of the essence. While the current internet outage is “not as bad 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 if it’s going to be outdated or not.”
Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at human rights organization Miaan Group, runs a resource center to help Iranians cope with internet shutdowns. Rashidi, a software developer who fled Iran more than a decade ago, said he and his team help provide Iranians inside the country with technology tools, risk analysis advice and trainings so they can stay connected with each other even when the internet is shut down by the government.
He believes Iranian officials are currently following a familiar playbook. “First,” he said, “they cut mobile data, and it’s sophisticated enough to shut down even in a particular neighborhood.” If the protests continue to grow, he said, “then they will start to expand the internet shutdown, step by step.” Eventually, he said, “they completely shut down and stop everything.”
But even as things stand, the options for getting around internet service outages are limited.
“So far they are cutting off mobile data and making it very difficult to work with the home connection landline,” Rashidi told CNN Business. “They’re so slow, with a lot of choke, so it’s hard to work on a landline as well.”
As Madory says, “If your phone doesn’t have mobile service, mobile data, you can’t create it.”
Netblocks’ Toker said the methods of restricting and disrupting the internet are so varied that even more advanced tools to circumvent blackouts are becoming increasingly difficult to use. For those who still have landline connections, “a VPN or the Tor network could be helpful,” Toker added. “Although these are also restricted by the authorities, so they are far from reliable.”
“The only real option when going completely offline is to document things offline in the hopes that when you’re back online you can timestamp and distribute them, along with evidence of human rights violations. man, for example,” Toker said.
Some are now calling on the tech industry to do more to help.
Meta-owned WhatsApp, for example, has said it “will do everything within the limits of our technical abilities to keep our service operational”. Rashidi praised Meta for his “help”, but called on international technology companies and organizations to do more to directly reach the Iranian people and help them retain access to their rights.
Encrypted messaging app Signal is asking for the public’s help in setting up “a proxy server that will allow Iranians to connect to Signal” amid power cuts.
Rashidi also criticized billionaire Elon Musk, who recently tweeted that his satellite broadband service, Starlink, would seek exemption from sanctions to provide internet in the country. “I know what’s realistic and what’s not and I don’t think Elon Musk is serious,” Rashidi said.
Despite the fear gripping his homeland at the moment amid protests and internet blackouts, Rashidi sees reason for hope. He feels the spirit of these protests, which are “led by women”, is different from the unrest of the past.
“I see more people are united,” he said. “Whatever the outcome of these protests, we are entering a new chapter in Iran.”