Iran’s internet blackout: What is happening, and why did the government turn it off?
What caused the internet shutdown in Iran?
The Iranian government implemented a near-total shutdown of internet services after protests began on November 15. The uprisings were sparked by the announcement of hikes in petrol prices across the country of at least 50 per cent. They quickly spread to cities and towns across the country and turned political, with protestors demanding high-ranking officials step down.
At least 106 protestors across 21 cities were estimated to have been killed in a report published Tuesday by Amnesty International. The Iranian government dismissed the estimate as “speculative.”
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How does this compare to other internet shutdowns around the world?
Iran is not the first country to employ an internet shutdown as a means to combat popular uprisings. Neighbouring Iraq, for instance, has sporadically cut citizens’ access to internet since the start of anti-government protests on October 1.
Over 320 protestors have been killed there since the uprising against rampant corruption and inefficiency began.
Nevertheless, Iran’s shutdown is unprecedented in its scale.
Internet access – Change in Freedom Score
Amin Sabeti, a researcher with digital security NGO Digital Impact Lab, said that no other shutdown has been implemented across such a large country, for such a length of time, and been so effective in preventing the dissemination of information.
Citing recent shutdowns, he explained: “In Kashmir, Iraq or Sudan, you could still find journalists, they could report back – for instance from the BBC. For Iran it wasn’t the case.”
Why did the government shut off the internet?
The Iranian government has been trying to persuade users to subscribe to its own communications applications, but the vast majority of Iranians still use foreign-run apps like WhatsApp. Protestors were even using route planning app Waze to mobilise for demonstrations, explained Mahsa Alimardani, a PhD student and internet researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute and researcher at freedom of expression watchdog Article 19.
As well as trying to reduce mobilisation, the Iranian government has been trying to control the narrative inside the country. “It’s quite effective, when you force people not to have any sources of information but yours, controlling that narrative becomes very simple,” said Ms Alimardani.
What was the impact of the shutdown outside the country?
The shutdown has also made the job of monitors and rights organisations outside the country very hard, explained Ms Alimardani.
“Verification of some of these atrocities, mass deaths, mass arrests – it’s become very hard with this internet shutdown because there’s lots of misinformation,” she said.
“The misinformation is being promoted by the government itself and by outside forces with political agendas.”
How was the shutdown enacted?
Shutting down internet services across a country of over 80 million people, with multiple internet providers, like Iran, is not easy. It took 24 hours to completely shut down traffic: authorities had to coordinate with a range of ISPs and mobile data providers to cut access, leaving connectivity levels at as little as five percent.
Iran has been developing its own apps and a nationwide intranet, the National Information Network, for several years.
Tehran has been encouraging businesses to sign up to and move their payment methods onto this national infrastructure for some time – this has made the economic impact of the shutdown easier to manage.
What about international sanctions?
Ironically, the Iranian government has perhaps been helped by wide-ranging American sanctions against it. With many US internet providers off-limits to Iranian consumers and businesses, many have been forced to use the state’s platforms.
“I don’t think sanctions are entirely responsible for Iran’s repressive policies and behaviour, but they’ve definitely been complimenting them,” said Ms Alimardani.
So what happens next?
Internet access was reportedly being restored across the country as of Thursday, although by Friday it was still only at 15 per cent of normal levels, according to internet watchdog NetBlocks.
The Iranian government may well have cause for concern in restoring full access to the internet, argued Mr Sabeti from Digital Impact Lab.
All those protestors who have witnessed and recorded rights violations will once again be able to connect to the media: “If we see full connection, the scale of video evidence will be mindblowing,” he said.