Getting around the internet blockade in Iran is no small feat

Getting around the internet blockade in Iran is no small feat

In response to the protests that have spread across Iran following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini - which took place while in the custody of the Iranian "moral police" - the country's government has imposed an extensive internet blocking, preventing most of the 80 million Iranian citizens to access numerous digital services. And although people from all over the world have taken steps to find a way to get Iranians back online, each approach seems to have limitations.

Faced with the ever-increasing internet restrictions they have had to contend with for years , the Iranians have adopted various solutions, such as VPNs and other relay services. Repressive governments are increasingly resorting to darkening connectivity as a way to control their citizens and although this strategy is better known today, there is still no simple, cheap and generalized way to restore citizens' digital access.

Efforts to re-establish digital communication routes in Iran focus on two objectives. Blocks affect both broadband internet and mobile data, due to what could be defined as internet shutdown switches, infrastructures the Iranian regime has been investing in for years. One possibility, therefore, is to create alternative connections, in particular through satellite services. However, the government is filtering and blocking access to certain digital services even when it is possible to connect to wi-fi or mobile data. This is why several people inside and outside the country are trying to come up with technical solutions that allow Iranians to maintain access to essential services, such as WhatsApp and Instagram. However, given the extent of government control, logistical obstacles and large global sanctions currently in place against Iran, progress is slow.

(almost) total blockade

What do we know about the Italian professional arrested in Iran Alessia Piperno, 30, has been traveling around the world for 7 years. In Iran, protests and demonstrations continue against the regime, which has responded with thousands of arrests and causing more than 100 deaths "The first thing we must understand is that this time the situation is different, because they are chasing every possible channel of communication. - explains Amir Rashidi, head of internet security and digital rights at the human rights organization Miaan Group, which focuses specifically on Iran. - It's a new thing for us. As an internet person Iranian for more than ten years, I have never seen the government chase every communication channel so aggressively. "

Rashidi reports that e-mail providers, including Yahoo Mail and , are blocked (Gmail, iCloud and ProtonMail are still accessible). Messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Instagram are also inaccessible, and the government is even blocking access to many video games, due to their messaging features.

Last week, the US Treasury Department introduced a license that grants US technology companies able to provide hardware, software, cloud services and other technologies to Iranians greater freedom of action in the context of sanctions imposed on the country.

Signal and Tor

Some communications services have systems in place to try to bypass digital locks. The secure messaging application Signal, for example, offers tools that allow people around the world to set up proxy servers that securely route app traffic to bypass government filters. In the past the service was only available for the Android version of Signal, but on September 28 the platform also added support for iOs.

Signal asks users for help against censorship in Iran Protests inflame the country, and the platform wants to guarantee encrypted and secure communications to citizens.However, for people in Iran who have not already installed Signal on their phone or have not registered their number, download the application or receive the sms code used to set up the account could be complicated, given the interruptions to connectivity. Android users who can't connect to Google Play can also download the app directly from Signal's site, but there is a possibility that malicious versions of the app will circulate on some online forums. In an attempt to solve this problem, the Signal Foundation has created the e-mail address "", from which you can request a secure copy of the application.

Tor, the famous service for anonymous browsing is mostly inaccessible in Iran, but some activists are working to create "bridges" within the country to connect internal networks to the global platform. In addition to being a difficult goal to achieve without infrastructure and resources, it is also extremely dangerous should the regime take over the business. Other attempts to create a clandestine infrastructure in Iran have also proved problematic, as they often require too much technical expertise to be safely carried out by people outside the industry. As in the case of Signal, then, it can also be difficult to determine the legitimacy of the initiatives to circumvent the blocks.

Iranian users are also relying on other services that incorporate proxies. For example, Firuzeh Mahmoudi, executive director of the non-profit organization United for Iran, which is based in the United States, says that the law enforcement application Gershad was heavily used during the blockade. The application, which has been circulating in Iran since 2016 and is now being developed by United for Iran, allows users to gather information on moral police movements and is now also used to track other security forces and checkpoints.

The Starlink Option

The fundamental question of accessing connectivity remains a critical challenge. In theory, efforts to provide satellite internet service could prove fruitful. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted last week that he was "turning on" the company's Starlink satellite internet service for people in Iran. However, this option would not represent the solution to all problems. To use Starlink or any other satellite internet service, hardware such as base stations are required, capable of capturing and translating the signal. Obtaining and installing these infrastructures requires resources and is particularly complicated in a place like Iran, where sanctions and trade blocks drastically limit access to equipment and the ability to pay subscription services or other connectivity fees. And even if they manage to overcome these obstacles, the potential problem of interference will still remain for users. French satellite operator Eutelsat, for example, said two of its satellites were disturbed by Iran. In addition to providing internet services, satellites also broadcast two major television channels of Iranian dissidents.

"There are many obstacles to installing [Starlink, ed] in Iran - explains Rashidi -. If you have a terminal I understand that Starlink works, but getting the terminals into the country is difficult. They also represent a security risk, because the government can locate them. Who and how will pay for everything, given the sanctions? But even if you ignore all these problems, satellite base stations do not solve the problem of mobile data, which is part of the block. You can't put a Starlink terminal in your backpack and go to a protest. So, while it would be useful, satellite connectivity doesn't solve the problem. " br>
Despite the multifaceted context, Iranian human rights advocates and activists point out that the global community can make a difference through outreach and continu went to work on creative solutions. With digital censorship and the blackout of connectivity being exploited as levers for authoritarian control by regimes, the development of tools to circumvent blocks plays an increasingly essential role. As Mahmoudi of United for Iran says, "We must all keep the light on."

This article originally appeared on US.

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