Blocking the internet in Iran is not enough to hide the regime's atrocities

Blocking the internet in Iran is not enough to hide the regime's atrocities

In the Iranian city of Shahrud, two women, surrounded by hundreds of protesters, climb onto a platform and defiantly wave their hijab over their heads. The scene, shot in a video, was posted online by the Instagram account 1500tasvir. In recent days, the profile has published dozens of videos shot in different cities of Iran, as thousands of people protest the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died while in the custody of the Iranian "moral police" who arrested her.

In another video shared by 1500tasvir, some women burn their veils while singing for freedom. In another, demonstrators are seen confronting police officers. Still other footage shows people bloodied, injured or killed following brutal clashes with police officers, as protests have spread to more than 80 cities across the country. "They went against the police, who are armed, and [the protesters, ed.] Just shout at them," says one of the people who runs the 1500tasvir Instagram account, of which UK decided to do not mention the name for security reasons.

Established practice

The 1500tasvir account was created in 2019 following widespread protests in which hundreds of Iranians were killed by the police. At the time, the Iranian authorities had completely blocked the internet, preventing people from organizing protests and limiting the flow of information into and out of Iran. Now history is repeating itself. But this time, there are more people watching what is happening in the country.

Last week, as thousands of people took to the streets to protest Amini's death, Iranian authorities repeatedly cut off mobile internet connections and cut off the services of Instagram and WhatsApp, two of the most popular social media popular in Iran. The internet blocks are the biggest since November 2019 and cause fear of further atrocities. More than thirty people have been killed so far, although the Iranian government has only recognized 17 dead.

"Disruption of mobile internet services has become a habit for the Iranian government when civil unrest occurs - explains Doug Madory, director of internet analytics at the monitoring company Kentik, who followed the blockades in the country - people used these services to share videos of the protests and the government crackdown, which therefore became targets of government censorship. " .

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Targeted Blocks

Iran began shutting down the internet on September 19, when protests over Amini's death have started to grow. Since then, several internet monitoring organizations, including Kentik, Netblocks, Cloudflare, and the Open observatory of network Interference, have documented the outages. Mobile network operators, including the country's largest suppliers, Irancell, Rightel and MCI, have been subject to continuous blackouts. Several mobile phone operators have lost connectivity for periods of about twelve hours; Netblocks said they encountered a "curfew-style lockdown strategy". Felicia Anthonio, head of the NGO Access Now's anti-internet disruption effort, reports that the group's partners reported that text messages containing Amini's name have been blocked: "If you send a message that contains the name , does not pass ", says Anthonio.

The repression against Instagram and WhatsApp began on 21 September instead. While interrupting mobile connections is extremely harmful, blocking access to WhatsApp and Instagram blocks some of the few social media services left in Iran. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been banned in the country for years. According to state-funded Iranian media, it is unclear how long the blocking of Instagram and WhatsApp, which would have been imposed for "national security" reasons, will last. "They seem to be targeting these platforms, which are the lifeline for information and communications that keep protests alive," said Mahsa Alimardani, an academic at the Oxford internet institute and a researcher with the Article 19 digital rights group. , as well as an expert on internet blocking and control tactics in Iran.

The 1500tasvir team member interviewed by UK claims that the account, run by a group of around ten people from within and outside Iran, he publishes videos to document the protests. People on site send the videos - intermittent connections can be found in some areas, while fixed wi-fi is still running - which are then checked before publication. The group, whose Instagram account is followed by over 450,000 people, says they receive more than a thousand videos a day.

Blocking the internet can have a "huge" impact on protests, explains the 1500tasvir team member: if people don't get a chance to see that others are protesting, they are likely to stop too: "When you see other people think like you, you get braver. When the internet is blocked you feel lonely."

The blockades against WhatsApp seem to have also affected people outside Iran. Several holders of Iranian phone numbers with the prefix +98 have reported that WhatsApp has slowed down or has stopped working altogether. WhatsApp denied having blocked Iranian phone numbers. However, the company - controlled by Meta - refused to provide further information as to why numbers prefixed with +98 outside Iran encountered problems. "Something strange is happening, and it is likely to have to do with the way Iran is implementing censorship on these platforms, which seems a little more targeted," Alimardani says.

In In recent years, governments seeking to silence their citizens or control their behavior are increasingly resorting to draconian internet blocks as a means of suppression. In 2021, 23 countries, from Cuba to Bangladesh, shut down the internet 182 times. The Iranian authorities, in particular, are not new to this practice. Anthonio explains that this is the third time that Iran has blocked the network in the past twelve months. "We continue to see how internet outages allow the authorities to hide the atrocities perpetrated against people during the protests," adds Anthonio.

The 2019 precedent

The current blockade of Iran's internet is the largest imposed by the country since the protests in November 2019, when citizens took to the streets to contest the drastic increase in the price of fuel. More than 200,000 protesters have suffered a brutal reaction from the police: Amnesty International has documented the names of the 321 people killed during the protests, although the NGO itself claims that the real figure is probably much higher (according to some estimates, the dead 1,500, with 4,800 injured).

During the protests of 2019, Iranian officials imposed a total shutdown of the internet. All connections were blocked, preventing people from telling the world what was happening (only the intranet, amateur and heavily censored, remained available in the country). So far, the internet blockades following Amini's death have not been the same size as in 2019. However, experts fear that they may continue to grow as protests extend, including an increase in police violence. . The Center for Human Rights in Iran reports that it has already recorded 36 deaths related to the protests, including children aged 15 and 16.

Despite the internet outage, the footage of the protests still managed to circulate. for the moment . "I'm seeing more content and videos of these protests than I saw in November 2019," says Alimardani. When the internet is disconnected, however, silence falls: "I have not received any messages in the last hour. Because they have cut the internet - explains the 1500tasvir member, who lives outside Iran - on the phone. They do not want the world to know how much they are cruel ".

This article originally appeared on UK.

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