Human communication

Internet freedom activists scramble to help Iranians escape Tehran’s digital crackdown

Internet freedom activists are scrambling to help Iranians escape Tehran’s online crackdown and are urging the US government and tech companies to do more to help keep a digital lifeline open to protesters.

Social media has served as a key catalyst for the protests that have swept Iran for more than a week, but the regime has blocked popular social media apps and regularly restricted internet access in an attempt to deprive people of oxygen. demonstrations.

“The Iranian government is attacking every channel of communication, regardless of the channel,” even chat features in video games, said Amir Rashidi, director of internet security and digital rights at Miaan Group, an organization Texas-based nonprofit. which focuses on human rights in Iran. “It’s something completely new.”

For 10 consecutive days, Iran’s three major mobile carriers cut service around 4 p.m. local time for about eight hours, said Doug Madory, director of internet analytics for Kentik, a company that monitors mobile phone performance. internet networks.

As a result, there has been a “significant increase” in fixed network traffic, Madory said, as Iranians are likely trying to access the internet from home.

Where there is internet access via mobile service or landlines, speeds are excruciatingly slow, hampering communication with the outside world, internet freedom groups have said.

Activists are sending circumvention tools and other technical advice to Iranians to help them circumvent the regime’s internet restrictions on messaging apps and social media, hoping to stay one step ahead of the authorities.

“I think the cat-and-mouse game has escalated,” said Peter Micek, general counsel for Access Now, a nonprofit that advocates for digital rights. In terms of technology, both the regime The “censorship apparatus” and the population are increasingly sophisticated, he said.

“Iranians are very tech-savvy, grew up learning how to get around these restrictions, and they’re going to use whatever methods they can,” he said.

Advocates of democracy and internet freedom hailed the Biden administration’s decision last week to extend an exemption from US sanctions to allow Iranians access to anti-surveillance tools offered on cloud services. Activists had been pushing for the move for several years and said it was now crucial for tech companies to take the lead in meeting the needs of Iranians battling internet censorship.

Google said in a tweet that its “teams are working to make our tools widely available, following recently updated US sanctions on communication services.”

Messaging apps Signal and WhatsApp, which the regime has tried to block, said they were working on alternatives – including setting up proxies – to make their services available to Iranians.

“Signal believes Iranians, like everyone else, have a right to privacy, so we’re doing everything we can to ensure that Iranians can access and use Signal,” said company president Meredith Whittaker. in a press release. .

But she said Iranian authorities had blocked the delivery of SMS text validation codes for the service and that the company had pledged to be “ready and available when issues beyond our control are resolved”.

WhatsApp tweeted that “We are working to keep our Iranian friends connected and will do everything in our technical ability to keep our service running.”

Human rights and internet activists said they fear the worst-case scenario in which the regime would completely shut down all links to the global internet, a blackout that would render all VPNs and other anti-censorship tools useless.

Iran pulled the plug during the country’s last major protests in 2019, and Amnesty International and other rights groups allege the regime killed hundreds of protesters during the blackout. Iran denies the allegations.

Micek expressed concern that “under the cover of darkness, a complete shutdown of mobile and or even landlines, the regime is going to feel more emboldened to take blatant action.”

Iran’s UN mission did not respond to a request for comment.

Partial or local shutdowns have become a frequent tool of authoritarian governments around the world. But a total shutdown comes with its own risks to a country’s economy, shutting down businesses from the outside world and disrupting the flow of goods.

“One of the things governments have learned is that the nuclear option is quite disruptive, even for themselves. For businesses, it causes a lot of collateral damage,” said Madory, from Kentik.

To tighten its control and limit any potential fallout, Iran has built its own alternative home network, an “intranet” with messaging services and search engines that do not rely on a link to the global internet. The service isn’t as user-friendly as its western equivalent, but it does offer authorities a way to maintain comprehensive electronic surveillance, experts said.

On state television, officials repeatedly encouraged Iranians to use the National News Network, Rashidi said.

Some Iranian activists abroad say the most effective way to counter the regime’s long-term restrictions is to send satellite equipment that would allow Iranians to bypass the country’s state-controlled telecommunications network entirely. Skeptics of the idea questioned whether it was a realistic prospect given the regime’s determination to control the flow of information and the daunting logistical challenge of smuggling satellite equipment.

Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has said he is ready to activate his company’s satellite internet service, Starlink, for Iranians after the Biden administration announced its broader exemptions for US sanctions against the coronavirus. ‘Iran.

It remains unclear whether the recently unveiled exemptions would allow Starlink to operate in Iran without violating US sanctions. But beyond the legal issues, providing Iranians with Internet service via satellite would require installing terminals in a country hostile to any communication tool beyond its control.

Technology experts say the satellite option would require large-scale smuggling of equipment, with all the risks that entails for those involved. Once land terminals in Iran, users would have to pay a subscription, which should be subsidized by outside aid. Users of the satellite service would also be vulnerable to detection by authorities every time they go online.

According to Madory, no government or outside organization has ever managed to undo the internet shutdown in another country.

The Biden administration has not publicly weighed in on whether it favors the idea or would actively support it. Officials said Starlink did not apply for a license to obtain an exemption from US sanctions.

When asked if the Biden administration was prepared to actively support a satellite internet option for Iranians, an administration official told NBC News, “We are limited in what we can say about entities. specific, so it’s not because we can’t share all the information. This does not mean that there is no work in progress.

Proponents of the approach say it represents the best long-term strategy.

“Satellite internet is definitely the way forward and the process to deliver it should start now,” said Hadi Ghaemi of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “But it will take months to a year at least to be available and impactful.”

The goal, say proponents, would not be to build a network that could support the entire population. Instead, the goal would be more limited, getting thousands of satellite kits into the country and into the hands of civil society groups and journalists, enough to break the regime’s monopoly on information and communication. with the outside world.

They also point to the prevalence of illegal but commonly available iPhones, alcohol and satellite dishes in Iran, thanks in part to smuggling routes through northern Iraq.

“I think what we’re asking for here is entirely achievable – getting thousands of Starlinks or similar devices into Iran,” said Mehdi Yahyanejad, internet freedom activist and tech entrepreneur. The goal should be around 10,000 satellite devices, he said.

“We are not going to be able to create an alternative internet infrastructure,” Yahyanejad said. “What we need is enough to defeat their game plan, that’s all.”