From Twitter alleys to cobblestone streets and from Instagram recriminations to protest avenues, the step is only one step. And the Iranian regime has understood this well. The country is shaken by demonstrations of anger following the death, on September 16, of Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested by the police of morality. And bloody repression. About 100 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”
Already on September 19, three days after Mahsa Amini’s death, the NetBlocks site, which monitors Internet blocks around the world, detected a service outage in some regions of the Kurdistan province – where the young woman came from. . “These are cuts located in time and space, sometimes affecting a large part of the country, sometimes areas where the regime is about to start repression”, deciphered the historian Jonathan Piron.
Many associations have received the news with anguish. On Instagram, the NGO Amnesty International expressed concern that these cuts and censorships would allow authorities to “kill and injure more protesters in the dark”. “The regime’s goal is to block the Internet, the telephone, the access of Iranians to the free world and 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”, Jonathan Piron lists. As early as 2006, Iranian authorities were accused of censoring more sites than any other country except China. YouTube, Twitter, BBC, Netflix, TikTok … All these sites have been gradually banned in the Middle Eastern country, however, many members of the government have a Twitter account. Instagram and WhatsApp, the international apps that had so far resisted the regime’s relentless censorship, were shut down on 21 September.
But if many sites are censored by the regime, social networks are particularly targeted. “Social networks have become both a window on Iran, which allows you to see what is happening there from abroad, but also a window that allows Iranians to see the free world, outside”, image Mahnaz Shirali. “These platforms have had great potential to channel the anger of young Iranians for several years and this has scared the Iranian regime, which does not want social cohesion to create a revolution,” adds the author of Window on Iran, the cry of a gagged people.
“There is no on / off button”
As in France, Iranian protesters write to each other online, organize, meet. By censoring the most popular social media and banning access to application stores (Google Play / Apple Store), the Iranian regime is silencing a large part of the population. Some Iranians were already using VPNs, which encrypt user traffic and connect it to a remote server, or the Tor network to bypass Tehran’s grip on the network.
“Censorship was already daily in Iran and every day many Iranians bypassed it,” Mahnaz Shirali points out. But some Internet users find themselves helpless. Especially since the regime has other strings in its bow. “Telephone operators are disabled, the regime prevents some operators from giving Internet access to their users, at the regional or city level,” explains Jonathan Piron. “The cuts are sporadic and quite random, there is no on / off button”, however, specifies the researcher within Etopia. In the late afternoon and evening, restrictions increase, as does the risk of crowds.
Relay images “at the risk of his life”
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accuses 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 of the West to destabilize the country. “The Iranian regime has long wanted to have an intranet that would allow it to control everything that circulates in the country. Iran has acquired real know-how in this area, “says Jonathan Piron. In 2019 and 2020, during the major demonstrations against rising fuel prices, the electricity had cut off all access to the Internet for three days. And he suppressed the protest in blood.
But this technique, used systematically by Tehran, is “a double-edged sword,” explains Mahnaz Shirali. “All the administrations of the country are connected to the Internet, they cannot be completely interrupted in the long term since their entire organization, their coordination, passes through the Internet”, explains the Iranian specialist. So when the censorship is so strong that no tool, including VPN and Tor, can get around it, some Iranians opt for the physical maneuver. “Some very skilled young people approach public buildings to covertly connect to their WiFi and broadcast their images of repression… At the risk of their lives. Because despite everything, adds Mahnaz Shirali, “the more we talk about it, the more we protect the population”.