Partial internet outage and blocking social media platforms in Iran has become Tehran’s strategic tool to confront mass protests inspired by the death of Mhsa Amini, 22 years old, after being detained by the Iranian Morality Police.
As a result of those protests, NetBlocks Observatory that monitors internet activities, has confirmed the broad disconnection of cell phone networks, which makes it difficult to trace the numbers of death toll and casualties among civilians. The numbers that have been largely contradicting under what has been called: Digital Outage, especially with blocking Google Play and Apple Store, and the difficulty of logging on to WhatsApp and Instagram apps by their users, very similar to the complete internet shutdown of 2019 due to the wide anti-government protests sparked by raising fuel prices by 300 percent.
Internet shutdown has become an efficient act repeatedly used by the Iranian state, taking into consideration the risk of total internet blackout on the national economy, which explains the resort to partial shutdown in response to the public protests.
Cell phone networks have been almost completely disconnected, while internet shutdown included the National Information Network which is an independent infrastructure for the local internet that uses unoriginal versions of Google search engine and Instagram app. The shutdown was broader in some areas such as Kurdistan province where most violent confrontations took place, it included Linkedin, Skype, Google Play, Apple Store, Microsoft, in addition to Instagram and Whatsapp (which are the most used apps in Iran) added to a number of apps and social media platforms banned in Iran in the past few years such as Twitter, Facebook and Telegram. That raised suspicions that Meta corporation might be involved, however, it has denied that, and assured its relentless attempts to provide its services.
In the same context, the Iranian Minister of Communications Eisa Zarepour hinted that Instagram and Whatsapp applications might be completely blocked, he said “Some American platforms have become incubators for riot, so we had to impose some restrictions on them. Restrictions will remain as long as those platforms are harmful”. He called on Iranians to avoid using platforms that do not conform to Iranian laws, and to move to national platforms rather than foreign ones. He added that cutting out internet services is due to security reasons that force the security authorities to impose restrictions on the internet. Minister of Interior Ahmed Vahidi added that internet had been cut out in order to contain demonstrations until they end.
Iranians abroad were not able to use Whatsapp with their Iranian phone numbers, many of them used decoding applications to be able to access blocked websites, despite that this wasn’t helpful as (DNS) servers across the country have been disabled, in addition to disabling private virtual networks, obstructing encryption of texting applications as well as limiting searches on Google.
NetBlocks observatory described the situation as the strictest internet ban since November 2019 protests when the nation experienced almost complete unprecedented internet blackout.
The Iranian actions can be explained by the wide spread of hash tag Amini which has been liked and re-tweeted over nine million times on Twitter, moreover, tens of famous athletes (such as Ali Karimi, Serdar Azmoun and Asghar Ferhadi) used social media platforms to express their support to the protesters.
The options to resist the Iranian measures are very limited. These measures meant to obstruct people gathering, prevent them from streaming live videos of the events, isolate them from the outside world, make it difficult to count precisely the death toll and prevent human rights violation documenting. As a result, people are recording events and scenes of police violence, keeping their records until internet service is back.
The Agency of Electronic Commerce warned on September 29th, 2022, that internet blackout and social media blocking will have devastating consequences such as the collapse of labor market (precisely 400,000 jobs), a million citizens may lose jobs, and another million may lose pensions, collapse of electronic trade, in addition to anger and strike of workers in technology firms. NetBlocks observatory estimated internet services cutoff losses at $1.5 million per hour.
The US Stance
As a result, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a number of measures that ease sanctions and restrictions that have been previously imposed on the Iranian communications sector. He said that the US permits technology firms to provide more digital services in Iran such as cloud internet as well as enhanced tools that strengthen Iranians’ safety and privacy on the internet to resist the Iranian government attempts to spy on its citizens.
According to the new measures, US technology firms are permitted to enable Iranian citizens to use advanced digital tools through widening services that include anti-virus software, video conferences, cloud internet, platforms, as well as safe global services in order to break the isolation imposed by the regime and to ensure people’s right to demonstrate and express their basic demands, moreover, to pro-act against the total isolation authorities may impose in case demonstrations widen and become uncontainable as happened in 2019.
While the US Department of Treasury sees that Tehran’s internet shutdown aims to prevent the world from monitoring violence against peaceful protests, which necessitates the US to strengthen its support of free information flow to Iranians to help them confront their government’s brutality and censorship. Even though, these American measures may not have immediate impact on the situation, they will have positive results on the long run.
On the other hand, Blinken assured that internet shutdown by the Iranian regime aims to prevent its citizens (80 million) and the rest of the world from watching violence against peaceful protests, which obliges the US to take measures that break the isolation imposed on Iranians, especially with incessant news about arresting journalists, and using protests as an excuse to shut down national press.
On the other hand, Google corporation assured the importance of carrying out some technical modifications to facilitate access to its websites, while Signal application has invented –in cooperation with some volunteer users- some alternative ways for logging in, and asked for assistance from users to use an alternative server to be used in case service is disconnected. However, both faced technical difficulties as Iranian communication companies refrained from releasing verification codes through text messages. Parallel to that Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX company, assured the activation of Starlink service in Iran on 25 September 2022, in response to Blinken’s statement that the US will take measures to facilitate free internet and information flow for Iranians, which required easing restrictions on internet services inside Iran and exposing service regulations for Iranian citizens as well as expediting related licenses for technology companies including SpaceX.
In order to understand the effectiveness of Starlink service in Iran, there are three opinions, the first sees it is useless, as the Iranian authorities will not support its requirements such as dish antennas and their directing devices, these supplies will have to be smuggled to the Iranian interior, opposite to what happened in Ukraine. In addition, the Iranian authorities will not support the service as the Minister of Communications has announced that: servers providing satellite internet services in conformance to international as well as the Islamic Republic regulations are welcome, which is contradicting to the open nature of the internet. Moreover, service stations may be subject to attacks by Iranian drones, which may result in escalation from the US, keeping in mind the difficulty of establishing ground stations, that are visible by interlocked satellites network, in neighboring countries, as happened in Ukraine, where those stations existed in Poland, Lithuania and Turkey. It should be noted that Iran’s vast geographical distance from the existing Starlink ground stations may push Musk to negotiate with Taliban government in Afghanistan to build new ground stations there.
The second opinion sees the importance and feasibility of Starlink as a form of hyper-speed internet that is not monitored by censorship as ground internet, and is a sort of technological support from the US to Iran similar to the American support to Ukraine over the Russian-Ukrainian war. It is also a tool that enables American technology firms to provide secured services without violating the American sanctions on Iran, especially with the easiness of providing the country with fast-charging reception stations, and the ability of running the service using laser technology that replaces ground stations.
The third opinion adopts the idea that SpaceX corporation is the main beneficiary from providing Iran with Starlink service, and not the Iranian people, where as Iran protests create an opportunity for promoting the company as a competitor of other leading firms working in satellite communications such as OneWeb, in addition to increasing its profit through selling antennas and modems. The company has been repeatedly assuring its capability to provide its service in 40 countries around the world through thousands of satellites instead of fiber-optic cables, which enables confronting authoritarianism and digital suppression.
That makes Iran the 41st country that uses SpaceX services, and makes Iran’s protests the best proof of the significance of space internet that enables users to defeat internet shutdown attempts, either partial or total despite the high cost of its equipment. For instance, in the US, users pay $100 a month for a speed of 2 Mbps; this is double the cost of cable internet which is 25 times faster than space internet.
However, SpaceX may reduce the cost of its space internet, or may make it totally free as it has done in Ukraine, where Elon Musk sent 5000 free stations.
To sum up, Iran undoubtedly did not welcome the US measures, considering them an unprecedented interference in its internal affairs, a strange instigation of demonstrations, and an attempt to complicate the situation that requires a counter act.
Despite many people’s doubts that those measures would be effective as they would never be able to solve internet communication across the country, especially with the limited number of internet potential users, Iran’s protests proved the involvement of US technology firms in the American-Iranian conflict under the pretext of confronting authoritarian regimes and escaping censorship, benefiting from the internet’s giant coverage, the diversity of its distinguished services and the increasing number of users.