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

Tech-savvy protesters and Iranian authorities play a cat and mouse game as the regime tries to muzzle angry demonstrations.
protest women's rights
Iranian demonstrators participate in a protest for Mahsa Amini in Tehran, Iran, on Sept. 21, 2022.AFP - Getty Images

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

Digital rights groups say they are sending circumvention tools and other technical advice to Iranians to help them sidestep the regime’s internet restrictions, and some activists are calling for a bolder approach to send in satellite internet gear to avoid the country’s computer networks altogether. 

Social media has served as a vital catalyst for the protests that have swept across Iran for more than a week, but the regime has blocked popular social media apps and steadily restricted internet access to try to deprive oxygen to the demonstrations.

“The Iranian government is going after every single channel of communication, no matter what the channel is,” even chat features in video games, said Amir Rashidi, director of internet security and digital rights at the Miaan Group, a Texas-based nonprofit organization that focuses on human rights in Iran. “That’s something completely new.”

For 10 consecutive days, Iran’s three main mobile operators have shut down service at about 4 p.m. local time for about eight hours, said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis for Kentik, a firm that monitors the performance of internet networks.

As a result, there has been a “significant uptick” in traffic on landline networks, Madory said, as Iranians are likely trying to gain internet access from their homes.

When there is internet access through mobile service or landlines, the speed is excruciatingly slow, hampering communication with the outside world, internet freedom groups said.

Activists are sending circumvention tools and other technical advice to Iranians to help them sidestep 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 organization that advocates for digital rights. When it comes to technology, both the regime’s “censorship apparatus” and the population are increasingly sophisticated, he said.

“Iranians are super tech savvy, have grown up learning how to circumvent these restrictions, and they’re going to use every method possible,” he said.

Pro-democracy and internet freedom advocates welcomed a decision last week by the Biden administration to expand an exemption to U.S. sanctions to allow Iranians access to anti-surveillance tools offered on cloud services. Activists had lobbied for the move for several years and said it was now crucial that tech companies take the initiative to meet the needs of Iranians battling internet censorship. 

Google said in a tweet its “teams are working to make our tools broadly available, following the newly updated U.S. sanctions applicable to communications services.”

The 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 that people in Iran, like all people, have a right to privacy, so we’re doing what we can to ensure that those in Iran can access and use Signal,” Meredith Whittaker, the company’s president, said in a statement. 

But she said Iranian authorities had prevented the delivery of SMS text validation codes for the service, and that the company was committed to be “ready and available when the issues outside of our control are resolved.”

WhatsApp tweeted that “We are working to keep our Iranian friends connected and will do anything within our technical capacity to keep our service up and running.”

Human rights and internet activists said they fear a worst-case scenario in which the regime completely closes down all links to the global internet, a blackout that would render all VPN 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 voiced concern that “under the cover of darkness, a full mobile and or even a fixed line shutdown, the regime is going to feel more emboldened to take egregious action.”

Iran’s U.N. 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 full-blown shutdown carries its own risks to a country’s economy, freezing out businesses from the outside world and disrupting the movement of goods.

“One of the things that governments have learned is that the nuclear option is pretty disruptive even to themselves. To business, it causes a lot of collateral damage,” said Madory, of Kentik.

To tighten its control and limit any potential fallout, Iran has built up its own alternative domestic network, an “intranet” with messaging services and search engines that do not rely on a link to the global internet. The service is not as user-friendly as the Western equivalent, but it offers the authorities a way of maintaining comprehensive electronic surveillance, experts said.

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

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

Elon Musk, the SpaceX CEO, has said he is ready to activate his firm’s satellite internet service, Starlink, for Iranians, after the Biden administration announced its broader exemptions for U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The administration has said if Musk’s company made a specific legal request for permission to provide satellite internet to Iranians, then officials would be ready to prioritize the request.

“We will certainly look for ways to facilitate technology services being made accessible to people in Iran,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said earlier this week.

It remains unclear if the exemptions recently unveiled would allow Starlink to operate in Iran without violating U.S. sanctions. But setting aside legal questions, providing Iranians with a satellite internet service would require getting terminals into a country that is hostile to any communication tool outside its control.

Tech experts say the satellite option would require smuggling in equipment on a mass scale, with all the risks that entails for those involved. Once the ground terminals were inside Iran, users would need to pay a subscription fee, which would have to be subsidized with outside help. Users of the satellite service also would be vulnerable to detection by the authorities whenever they logged on. 

No government or outside organization has ever managed to overturn another country’s internet shutdown, according to Madory. 

Asked if the Biden administration was ready to actively support a satellite internet option for Iranians, an administration official told NBC News, “We are limited in what we can say on specific entities, so just because we can’t share all the information doesn’t mean there isn’t work underway.”

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

“Satellite internet is certainly the way forward and the process of providing 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, proponents say, would not be to build a network that could support the whole population. Instead, the aim would be more limited, to get thousands of the 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 iPhones, alcohol and satellite television dishes that are illegal but commonly available in Iran, thanks in part to smuggling routes through northern Iraq.

“I think what we are asking here is totally achievable — getting thousands of Starlink or similar devices into Iran,” said Mehdi Yahyanejad, an internet freedom activist and tech entrepreneur. The goal should be roughly 10,000 satellite devices, he said.

“We’re 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 it.”