Can the West act in time to help Iran get online? - analysis

Iran’s regime has restricted internet and phone access and gone after social media sites.

 A man gestures during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police" (photo credit: WANA VIA REUTERS)
A man gestures during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's "morality police"
(photo credit: WANA VIA REUTERS)

The struggle for Iran is now taking place online, and it requires helping Iranians have access to social media and the Internet.

On Friday, the US said it was taking action to advance Internet freedom so that Iranians could access the free flow of information. According to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Washington was issuing a general license to provide Iranians with greater access to digital communications and “counter the Iranian government’s censorship.”

Elon Musk also wrote that he was “activating Starlink.” According to Reuters, “Musk said on Monday that the company wanted to provide Starlink satellite broadband service – already provided to Ukraine for its fight against Russia’s invasion – to Iranians, and would ask for a sanctions exception.

It is not known how these two initiatives will help Iranians or if they will happen fast enough to help them share what is happening and save lives.

What are the protests over?

Iranians have been protesting for more than a week after the regime was accused of murdering a woman, Mahsa Amini, for not covering her hair. Iran’s interior minister on Saturday said Amini did not die as the result of police abuse, but her parents and the Kurdish community where she came from in western Iran are outraged by her death, as are millions of Iranians.

 Women hold a picture of Mahsa Amini during a sit-in following her death, at Martyrs' Square in Beirut, Lebanon September 21, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR) Women hold a picture of Mahsa Amini during a sit-in following her death, at Martyrs' Square in Beirut, Lebanon September 21, 2022 (credit: REUTERS/MOHAMED AZAKIR)

The protests began in the Kurdistan Region of Iran last week and spread quickly to Tehran and other cities. Last week, in the Kurdish city of Shino (Oshnavieh), reports said part of the town was controlled by protesters. But activists also said security forces have killed people, with video showing live fire being used against them. It is believed that by Friday, Iran had killed 16 protesters, but the death toll rose overnight.

Iran’s leader has been in New York, feted at the United Nations, where the regime thinks it can ignore the protests back home. This is in part because the regime feels impunity and feels secure.

On the other hand, the regime also has a habit of letting protests take place for a few days before mobilizing the IRGC and its Basij militia to crack down on them. On Friday, the regime organized mass “anti-riot” demonstrations to coincide with Friday prayers. But the counterdemonstrations appear to have been small, and it seems that the protesters are not intimidated.

Demonstrators had taken to the street last week in Tehran, the Kurdistan Region, northern Iran and northeastern Iran, but there were few reports of disturbances in southern Iran, which is populated more by Arabs and Baloch minorities.

What has the regime done in retaliation for the protests?

To counter the protests, Iran’s regime has restricted Internet and phone access and gone after social media sites. Iranian activists who spoke to us via intermediaries said videos they posted online were removed or restricted; in many cases, they blamed social-media giants for censoring their content. It was not clear why the videos had been censored or removed.

One Iranian social-media influencer showed how posts that usually reach more than 10,000 people on Instagram were now reaching few. Another activist showed a screenshot in which their video was restricted based on complaints from unnamed countries.

Iran’s regime has said it has put restrictions on social networking sites. It is unclear if the US support for Iranians being able to access the Internet will actually get around these restrictions. It is widely known that regimes have sought to cut down on access by people to messaging services and social networking in the last decade after many dissidents used technology to help fuel the Arab Spring and also protests in Ukraine in 2014 and other places.

The last several years have seen countries work with social-media giants to cut down on dissident posts. For instance, Turkey has often censored criticism of its regime and charged dissidents for “insulting” its leadership. It appears that many Big Tech companies are willing to work with various governments, even if the governments are suppressing content by targeting dissidents and activists.

“An Instagram account displaying comic strips depicting the struggles faced by gay Muslim men was removed on Wednesday after authorities labeled it ‘pornographic’ and threatened to block the platform,” Reuters reported in 2019.

Most democratic Western governments have not held hearings or demanded transparency when Big Tech companies appear to censor people at the behest of authoritarian regimes. It is not clear whether Iran is one of the regimes that are able to get accounts removed by working with Big Tech corporate leaders. The reports from the Islamic Republic of people who say their content is restricted or is not distributed to their followers indicate they feel they are being targeted.

Iranians forced to find new ways of speaking to the world

According to Al Jazeera and Reuters, “Iran has curbed access to social media networks Instagram and WhatsApp amid protests over the death of a woman in police custody, according to residents and Internet watchdog NetBlocks. Some messaging services are pushing back.”

According to a tweet from WhatsApp last Thursday, “We exist to connect the world privately. We stand with the rights of people to access private messaging. We are not blocking Iranian numbers. We are working to keep our Iranian friends connected and will do anything within our technical capacity to keep our service up and running.”

Iranians have reported that other methods of communications have been disrupted, including ADSL Internet and the communications network IranCell. Iranians with phone chips for Iran said they were not working. This shows how far the regime has gone in its battle to plunge the authoritarian country into technological darkness.

The struggle that the US and others have hinted at, in terms of helping Iranians access the Internet, is clearly at the forefront of today’s protests.

The US decision to side with the protesters is in contrast to how it saw protests more than a decade ago, when the administration was angling for an Iran deal and preferred working with the regime and with Russia. Now, things have changed, and the White House cares about democracy abroad and confronting authoritarians.

America has sanctioned Iran’s “morality” police over the kind of abuses that led to Amini’s death. Human-rights groups are slamming Iran, and the US has criticized it for drone sales, cyberattacks and other activities in recent weeks. The Treasury Department has adjusted guidance that could expand Internet access.

“Officials said the move would help Iranians access tools that can be used to circumvent state surveillance and censorship but would not entirely prevent Tehran from using communications tools to stifle dissent, as it did by cutting off Internet access for most citizens on Wednesday,” Reuters reported.