Rocked by demonstrations, Iran relies on its “know-how”

From the alleys of Twitter to the cobblestone streets, and from the accusations of Instagram to the protest streets, it’s just a step. And the Iranian regime understood that well. Anger erupted in the country following the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested by the vice squad. And bloody oppression. Hundreds of people were killed by the authorities, according to the NGO Iran Human Rights. To limit gatherings and increase control over the population, the Iranian regime has severely restricted access to the internet.

“Kill and Wound in the Dark”

As early as September 19, three days after Mahsa Amini’s death, the NetBlocks website, which monitors internet blocking around the world, noted a service disruption in certain regions of the Kurdistan province where the young woman was from. “These are isolated incisions in time and space, sometimes they affect a large part of the country, sometimes areas where the regime wants to initiate repression,” decodes the historian Jonathan Piron, who specializes in Iran.

Many associations received the news with concern. On Instagram, the NGO Amnesty International expressed concern that these cuts and censorship would allow the authorities to “kill and injure more protesters in the dark”. “The goal of the regime is to cut off the Internet, the telephone, Iranians’ access to the free world and to do what it wants with its people: kill them,” said sociologist and political scientist Mahnaz Shirali.

Social media hunt

Tehran has restricted access to social media for years. “Social networks are very popular in Iran, especially WhatsApp, Telegram and Instagram,” lists Jonathan Piron. Back in 2006, Iranian authorities were accused of censoring more websites than any other country except China. YouTube, Twitter, the BBC, Netflix, TikTok… All of these sites have been gradually banned in the Middle Eastern country – but many members of the government have a Twitter account. Instagram and WhatsApp, international apps that had so far defied the regime’s relentless censorship, were shut down on September 21.

But when many sites are censored by the regime, social networks are particularly targeted. “Social networks have become both a window to Iran, allowing the outsider to see what is happening there, and a window allowing Iranians to see the free world outside,” image Mahnaz Shirali. “These platforms have had great potential for channeling the anger of young Iranians for several years, and this has frightened the Iranian regime, which does not want social cohesion to create revolution,” adds the author of Window to Iran, the scream of a gagged people.

“There is no on/off switch”

As in France, the Iranian demonstrators write to each other online, organize and meet. By censoring the most popular social media and banning access to app stores (Google Play/Apple Store), the Iranian regime is silencing a large part of the population. Some Iranians have already used VPNs, which encrypt user traffic and connect it to a remote server, or the Tor network to bypass Tehran’s hold on the web.

“Censorship was already commonplace in Iran and many Iranians circumvented it on a daily basis,” emphasizes Mahnaz Shirali. But some netizens are helpless. Especially since the regime has other strings on its bow. “Telephone operators are disabled, the regime prevents certain operators from granting Internet access to their users at regional or city level,” explains Jonathan Piron. “The cuts are sporadic and quite random, there is no on/off button,” the Etopia researcher specifies. Restrictions increase in the late afternoon and evening, as does the risk of gatherings.

Passing on pictures “at risk of life”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has accused the West – and in particular its sworn enemies the United States and Israel – of fomenting these demonstrations. The Iranian authorities believe that the Internet is a tool used by the West to destabilize the country. “The Iranian regime has long wanted to have an intranet that would allow it to control everything that circulated in the country. Iran has acquired real know-how in this area,” says Jonathan Piron. In 2019 and 2020, Strom blocked all access to the Internet for three days during the large-scale demonstrations against the increase in fuel prices. And bloodily suppressed the protest.

But this technique, which Tehran uses systematically, is “a double-edged sword,” explains Mahnaz Shirali. “All of the country’s administrations are connected to the Internet, and in the long run they can’t cut it completely because their entire organization and coordination runs over the Internet,” explains the Iran specialist. So when censorship is so strong that no tool, including VPN and Tor, can bypass it, some Iranians opt for the physical maneuver. “Some very clever young people approach public buildings to secretly connect to their Wi-Fi and share their images of oppression… At the risk of their lives. Because despite everything, adds Mahnaz Shirali, “the more we talk about it, the more we protect the population”.

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