A major internet blackout in Iran could have dire consequences

As people in Iran took to the streets to demonstrate, fuel prices rose 300% overnight. The New York Times reported at the time that “180 to 450 people and possibly more” had been killed in four days of violence, thousands injured and arrested, while much of the country was plunged into digital darkness. Reuters reported in December 2019 that 1,500 people had died in two weeks of unrest.
Now, worried histories could repeat themselves amid renewed civil strife. Protesters have flooded the streets in recent days after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, died while in custody of Tehran’s moral police. Iranian officials said he suffered a heart attack, but his family said he had no prior heart disease. “I don’t know what they did to him,” his father, Amjad Amini, told BBC Persia. “Everything is a lie.”

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

“I don’t think it’s going to make us think it’s accidental,” said Doug Madory, director of Internet analytics at network intelligence firm Kentik, Inc. “My understanding given the context, the goal is to stop people from sharing videos and communicating with the outside world.”

As Alp Toker, director of Netblocks, said, “the impacts of these disruptions cannot be overstated.” This week, Netblocks he said The Iranian people are “subject to the most severe internet restrictions since the November 2019 massacre.”

The loss of internet connection “has become a central fear etched in the minds of Iranians, especially post-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. “What happens, when it comes to human rights violations, abuses of power become 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 technology sector in particular — to do more to help the Iranian people. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on Friday that the US government was taking steps to remove some sanctions-related red tape and help tech companies get digital tools to the people of Iran.

“We will help keep the Iranian people isolated and in the dark,” Blinken said. “This is a concrete step to provide meaningful assistance to Iranians to respect their fundamental rights.”

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

The widespread scale of blackouts leaves little room for avoidance

Amir Rashidi, director of digital rights and security at the human rights organization Miaan Group, runs a resource center to help those in Iran deal with internet blackouts. 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 guidance and training so they can stay connected to each other, even when the Internet is cut off. the government

He believes Iranian officials are now following a well-known playbook. “First,” he said, “data shuts down cellphones, and this is sophisticated enough to shut down even in a certain neighborhood.” If the protests continue to grow, he said, “then they start shutting down the Internet, step by step.” Eventually, he said, “they shut down and shut down everything.”

But as it stands today, the options for getting out of internet service outages are limited.

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

“Until now, they’ve been shutting down mobile data and making it very difficult to work with a fixed home connection,” Rashidi told CNN Business. “They’re so slow, with a lot of throttling, so it’s hard to even work on a landline.”

As Madory says, “If your phone doesn’t have cellular service, cellular data, you can’t exist.”

Netblocks’ Toker said the methods of internet throttling and disruption are so varied that using more advanced tools to deal with blackouts is becoming increasingly difficult. For those who still have landline connections, “a VPN or the Tor network can be useful,” Toker added. “Although, they are also restricted by the authorities, so they are far from reliable.”

“The only real option during a complete disconnection is to document things offline in hopes of time-stamping and distributing them when you’re back online, as evidence of human rights abuses, for example,” Toker said.

Some are now calling for more support from the tech industry.

Meta-proprietary WhatsApp, for example, has he said “will do anything within our technical ability to keep our service running.” Rashidi praised Meta for “being helpful,” but called on international tech companies and organizations to do more to reach out directly to the Iranian people and help maintain access to their rights.
Encrypted messaging app Signal is asking for the public’s help in setting up “a proxy server that will allow people in Iran to connect to Signal” between blackouts.

Rashidi also criticized billionaire Elon Musk, who recently tweeted that Starlink would ask for its satellite broadband services to be exempt from sanctions for providing internet in the country. “I know what’s realistic and what’s not realistic and I don’t think Elon Musk is serious,” Rashidi said.

Even though her hometown is in fear right now amid protests and internet blackouts, Rashidi sees reason for hope. She believes that the spirit of these “women-led” protests is different from the unrest of the past.

“I’m seeing more people joining,” he said. “Regardless of the outcome of these protests, we are entering a new chapter in Iran.”