The death of a young woman in police custody in Iran sparked protests against the government. These protests have gone viral and then some.
The Internet is one of the most important tools for these protesters. Since more than a week ago, people all over the world have been sharing heartbreaking videos and photos of clashes between protesters and Iranian police.
They’ve been at the top of the news and spread all over the world.
The hard-line government in Tehran has used digital trackers and waged an all-out media war against protesters and their supporters. It used this strategy in 2019 to stop protests in just three days. Back then, the government took over the internet and started a violent crackdown that led to as many as 1,500 deaths and thousands of arrests.
This time is not the same. The protests have been going on for over a week and show no sign of stopping.
They started on September 16 after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was thought to have broken the country’s conservative dress code. They quickly tapped into a wider discontent with government corruption and falling living standards. Officials say that 41 people have been killed, including protesters and police, and that 1,200 people have been arrested. However, rights groups say that the number of deaths is much higher.
One of the main reasons protesters have been able to keep going and keep the world’s attention is that they were ready to fight in cyberspace.
“In 2019, everyone was shocked that the government could shut down the internet for so many people,” said Mahbod, a student at Tehran’s Sharif University who is 27 years old. Like the other people he talked to, he only gave his first name out of fear of being hurt.
Hackers and tech experts from all over the world have joined the fight to help tech-savvy activists organize, fight back, and win in the digital domain. This is a key battleground that Iran’s government seems less able than ever to control.
A few hours after the protests started, the internet connection in Tehran dropped by 33%. This problem soon spread to other cities and provinces in Iran.
But activists quickly got ahead of the government by using Instagram and WhatsApp, two of the few social media sites that were still working, to call for protests and set up places to meet. Even though Twitter was shut down, they started a hashtag called #Mahsa Amini in Persian, which was shared by about 30 million people. Iranian opposition outlets say that more than 100 million people have used it, making it the hashtag with the most retweets in Twitter’s history.
Then, on Wednesday, the government made it harder to use most social media, especially between 4 p.m. and 1 a.m., which is when most protests happen. People can’t use Apple and Google Play stores to download Virtual Private Network (VPN) apps, which could be used to avoid surveillance.
Still, Mahbod’s more tech-savvy friends at university tell him which software and settings to use. It’s not unusual for people to have four or five different programs they switch between depending on the day and where they are.
“The VPNs we use are much more complicated than they were a few years ago,” said Mehdi, a 39-year-old computer geek from Tehran who calls himself a “geek.” “The cheap ones you have to change every three or four days, but the more expensive ones with subscriptions work well.” Help has also come from outside of Iran. Anonymous, a group of hackers, has broken into government websites, including that of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran. It doxxed members of parliament on Sunday by putting out their phone numbers and other information.
Also, the U.S. Treasury Department eased sanctions on Friday by letting tech companies offer “secure, outside platforms and services” to Iranian users.
In a statement, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said, “As brave Iranians take to the streets to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, the United States is stepping up its support for the free flow of information to the Iranian people.”
“By making these changes, we’re giving the Iranian people more tools to fight back against the government’s attempts to spy on and censor them,” the statement said.
A few hours later, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk said that the Starlink satellite system, which uses a low-Earth-orbit satellite network to provide broadband internet, was now working in Iran.
Soon, Tehran blocked access to the Starlink website, and fake activation links with malware were put on Iranian Twitter in what seemed to be an attempt to lure protesters against the government.
Nasser Kanaani, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said on Saturday that “America is trying to achieve its own goals against Iran by being hypocritical.” He said that by easing some sanctions on communication but keeping others in place, the U.S. is trying to do this.
He also said, “Attempts to break Iran’s sovereignty will not be ignored.”
Tech experts from Iran who work abroad have also joined the fight. As the head of the U.S.-based biotech company 310.ai and a former Facebook engineer, Kooshiar Azimian regularly posts on his Instagram page about the newest way to connect to the internet in Iran.
Moshfegh Hamedani, an Iranian computer scientist who lives in the U.S., has posted information on Twitter about how to get around website filtering and criticized government programmers.
More and more government officials are saying that people who take part in the unrest will get in trouble.
Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, Iran’s hard-line judicial chief, said this week during a visit to the police headquarters that protesters and rioters were “the foot soldiers of the enemies of the Islamic Republic.” He repeated President Ebrahim Raisi’s harsh words from the past and said that people who disobey the law will get “no mercy.”
Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment tweeted that the government wanted to limit access to the internet “so it could control people in the dark.”
He wrote that the best thing the U.S. and other Western countries can do to help Iranians is to stop the Iranian government from blocking access to the internet. Sadjadpour said that the best way for protesters to bring about change is to “connect with each other and the outside world.”