Iran shuts off its internet as protests worsen

Iranian authorities have almost completely shut down the country’s internet and restricted access to Instagram and WhatsApp after protesters flooded social media with videos of anti-government demonstrations and violent clashes with Iranian police.

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Meta’s Instagram and WhatsApp — the country’s two last remaining social media platforms — were disrupted at multiple internet providers as anger over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of vice squads sparked large-scale protests across the country.

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London-based internet watchdog NetBlocks also reported a “nationwide loss of connectivity” at Iran’s main mobile operator and another company’s network.

The protests began last week after the country’s Guidance Patrol – the vice squad responsible for overseeing the public implementation of the hijab – arrested Amini in Tehran for “inappropriate dress” and she died in custody days later. Images emerged suggesting she had been beaten, although police claimed she died of a sudden heart attack.

While Iran has some of the tightest internet controls in the world with TikTok, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook, the news quickly spread online, with #MahsaAmini becoming one of the most repeated hashtags on Persian Twitter.

Millions of images of protesters damaging symbols of the Islamic Republic and of women burning their veils and cutting their hair have been leaked online, prompting Iranian authorities to shut down internet access and all online communication efforts stop.

Iranians can now only communicate with each other through choppy phone calls, texts with no photos on WhatsApp, and blocked websites that can only be accessed by those using virtual private networks — which RadioFreeEurope says 80% of Iranians have.

“Iran is now subject to the toughest internet restrictions since the November 2019 massacre,” NetBlocks said.

A worrying past

Since the #MahsaAmini hashtag became fashionable, protests have erupted in 12 cities across Iran and eight people have died in ensuing violence, according to Reuters. Officials have denied that security forces killed protesters and claimed armed dissidents shot them dead.

The last time the Iranian government cracked down on internet access with such violence was in response to the 2019 protests that saw protesters and police clashes in more than 20 cities that saw fuel prices plummet by 50% to 200% % increased. Internet connectivity in the country went down for six days after those protests began, according to NetBlocks, and more than 1,500 civilians were killed, US special envoy to Iran Brian Hook said.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has tightly controlled the internet since 2012, even going so far as to set up a Cyberspace Supreme Council dominated by security agencies without public oversight to “regulate” online spaces and the Iranian Internet to formulate policy.

Iran is still suffering from the Western economic sanctions imposed on the country, a situation where social media can be seen as a dangerous tool to motivate the populace to rise up against the establishment.

The censorship also extends to international news sources, as Khamenei sees an ongoing “hybrid war” against Islam, in which the “enemy” seeks to use the media in an “assault to distort and destroy” the clerical establishment, writes the Atlantic Council.

Starlink as a solution?

Billionaire Elon Musk has suggested his Starlink satellite internet service could offer a potential solution to the access outage. Starlink satellites, which operate in low-Earth orbit, are accessed using small base station dishes and could potentially allow the Iranians to circumvent government efforts to block social media and outside press sites.

“Starlink will request an exemption from Iranian sanctions,” the SpaceX CEO wrote on Twitter early Tuesday.

A spokesman for Meta said wealth, “We are aware that people in Iran are being cut off from internet services. Iranians use apps like Instagram to stay close to loved ones, access timely and important information, and stay connected to the rest of the world. We hope their right to be online will be restored quickly.”

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