Iran: New tactics for digital repression as protests continue

Iran: New tactics for digital repression as protests continue - Digital

Protest in Sanandaj, Kurdistan, Iran. Photo: Farzad Seifikaran

Iranian authorities continue to deploy new tactics to crack down on freedom of expression and access to information as the popular uprising continues across the country.

Since mid-September, when news emerged of the death in custody of a young woman called Jhina (Mahsa) Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police, a popular uprising has engulfed the country,  with protests having taken place across Iran for over two months now — in at least 140 cities across the country. Iran’s authorities have responded with a bloody crackdown. Security forces have unlawfully fired live ammunition and metal pellets at protesters, resulting in the killing of hundreds of men, women and children, and injuries to thousands more. According to the organisation Human Rights Activists In Iran, the death toll as of 17 November sits at 362, with 56 children amongst those killed. The actual total is believed to be higher. Authorities have also imposed extensive internet censorship and blockings since the start of the uprising, which further facilitates the commission and concealment of grave violations and crimes under international law, committed with impunity by the authorities. 

ARTICLE 19 has been extensively monitoring the extent of internet controls in Iran for years. We unpacked the anatomy of the November 2019 internet shutdowns, understanding and outlining the system for internet infrastructure and governance with our 2020 Tightening the Net Report. During the November 2019 nationwide shutdowns we had concluded there exists a decentralised system for implementing shutdowns through Internet Service Providers (ISPs). However, a centralised system of governance for ordering these shutdowns also exists, which increases during protests and where internet governance is treated as a ‘national security’ matter. Due process and information about who is responsible for issuing orders for digital repression is shrouded in secrecy and lack of transparency, but at the core of it ARTICLE 19 discovered that the Communication Regulatory Authority (CRA), under the umbrella of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) – in reality heavily controlled by Iran’s intelligence forces – enforces the use of surveillance and censorship equipment at the ISP levels, as well as ordering shutdowns and other disruptions from the mandate of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).

Since 2019 we have been monitoring how the Islamic Republic of Iran has been developing their means for digital repression. The financial losses and technical glitches that existed during the November 2019 shutdowns were numerous. We have been seeing that these efforts to make digital repression more efficient have been primarily built under the policies of the User Protection Bill (or Tarhe Sianat). This Bill aims to efficiently formalise the process of internet nationalisation through many means, including placing governance of internet systems in the hands of security forces; eliminating and criminalising the use of all Virtual Private Networks (VPNs); and making all foreign internet services unusable if they refuse to cooperate with the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Attacking mobile internet

Another protest digital repression tactic we have seen throughout these uprisings  are shutdowns or severe disruptions to mobile internet connections.

Mobile shutdowns have been a tactic increasingly used since November 2019, especially during regional protests from 2021 to the present in provinces including Khuzestan, Kurdistan, and Sistan and Baluchistan. Mobile shutdowns become near total internet shutdowns in these regions where most users rely on mobile connections to access the internet. This is especially true amongst more impoverished communities and areas where the Islamic Republic of Iran has not invested in landline communications, so home broadband connections are rare if not nonexistent in these areas.

Mobile internet connections have become disabled in a number of locations on most days since the protests began – curfews that have meant mobile internet providers have been unusable, if not completely throttled, from 4pm to 1am. Data has shown these outages on various days on the major mobile carriers such as Irancell, Rightel and Hamrah Aval (MCI) across the country. Because mobile internet service is the main source of internet connectivity for people in Iran, these measures have had a debilitating impact on access to the internet. In addition, home broadband connections have experienced extreme throttling and disruptions at times that there has been a surge in protests. 

In many instances, the cities where internet shutdowns have been most extreme have also been subjected to the most extreme forms of brutality from authorities, including in Zahedan, Sanandaj and Saqqez, all populated by Iran’s persecuted Kurdish and Baluch ethnic minorities, which account for almost half of the protester fatalities. This alarming trend supports ARTICLE 19’s long-held argument that internet shutdowns facilitate crimes against life.

Censorship and cutting off circumvention tools

Since September 2022, protest-related digital repression has seen a number of mechanisms to curb the use of the internet. One of these methods has been one of the central tenets of the User Protection Bill, which is to disable use of VPNs. ARTICLE 19 has tracked the advances in technology that are being developed to disable VPNs, including Deep Packet Inspection, since 2021. The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) has also detected blocking of certain protocols that aid in disabling circumvention tools in Iran. Since the majority of foreign or independent applications that are not either controlled or collaborating with the state are blocked by authorities (Instagram and WhatsApp were the first remaining applications blocked at the start of the protests), VPNs have become extremely crucial. With most VPNs becoming disabled, accessing an internet not controlled by the Iranian state has become extremely difficult. Finding VPNs that work has been further exacerbated by the authorities’ recent blocks of Google and Apple App stores, two central sources for downloading safe and secure VPNs. Without VPNs, it’s impossible to consume information or communications that are not controlled by the state, including mobile curfews and regionalised internet shutdowns. 

The sophisticated levels of censorship and surveillance machinery have been supported by leaks from Internet Service Providers (ISPs),as an investigation by the non-profit news organisation the Intercept reveals. Their investigations of the SIAM system’s role in targeting throttling of user access to the internet as well as surveillance mechanisms further adds to the alarm over users’ rights in Iran.

We have also been alarmed to hear about the use of national technologies such as locally-operated platforms for taxis or food delivery sharing user data with authorities to geolocate and arrest protesters and activists. The integration of private technology and state repression adds further fuel to an alarming climate for the tools for freedom of expression and access to a safe and secure internet.