Protests over the water crisis in Khuzestan, Iran entered their twelfth night on Monday, while bigger crowds have taken to the streets in solidarity in several other provinces. At the same time, internet and phone line shutdowns in affected localities have now lasted for longer than they did during the nationwide uprisings of November 2019.
Internet disruption in parts of Khuzestan, including in the provincial capital of Ahvaz, was widely reported by Iranian social media users within days of the protests getting under way on July 15. Last Wednesday, July 21, monitoring company Netblocks confirmed there had been “significant disruption” to mobile internet across Iran starting on July 15.
In November 2019 the Islamic Republic infamously imposed a near-total shutdown of the internet, which was lifted by degrees after a week of solid blackouts. This time, though, the intermittent disruption has already continued for close to 10 days.
A citizen of Ahvaz told IranWire’s sister website Journalism is Not a Crime on Monday, July 26 that mobile internet was still down in most of Khuzestan, while landline internet connections and Wi-Fi inexplicably only worked for Iranian websites.
At least 10 Iranian citizens have been killed by security forces since protests over the water crisis and government mismanagement erupted in Khuzestan 13 days ago. Police and special forces have used live ammunition to attack civilian protesters and hundreds of people have been arrested, with many transferred to unknown locations. "They’ve also threatened local journalists on the phone,” IranWire’s contact in Ahvaz added, “telling them they’ll be arrested themselves if news of the arrests and repression leaks out.”
Internet shutdowns have been a mainstay of the Islamic Republic’s response to protests since the 2009 Green Movement. Civilians’ difficulty contacting with the world outside allows the Iranian security agencies to act with impunity in their violent repression of popular uprisings. During the shutdown in November 2009, between 300 and 1,500 people were killed by state forces inside of 10 days.
The owner of a cafe in Ahvaz told Journalism is Not a Crime their business had also been affected by the latest shutdowns. “This is no life,” they said. “The internet was working from last night until noon today, but then they disconnected it again. Businesspeople like me depend on the internet. They just humiliate us all the time.
“To end the protests, shouldn’t people’s problems be addressed instead? Will the farmers and ranchers of Khuzestan get their water because the internet has been cut off? Will the thirsty people in the villages get something to drink?”
Internet Shutdowns in the Capital – For All But a Privileged Few
Iranians in Tehran also said the internet had been cut off in some of the central and western neighborhoods at 12pm on Monday. The shutdown came as hundreds took part in a march down Jomhouri and Enghelab Avenues, chanting slogans against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Internet shutdown have also been reported in Isfahan, where protests have been held in solidarity with those in Khuzestan.
The shutdowns come at a time when the Iranian parliament is also poised to impose stricter controls on internet access in Iran. On Monday MPs debated a bill entitled “Protecting Privacy and Organizing Messaging Applications", which proposes ways to reduce Iranian citizens’ access to news websites operated from abroad.
It followed debate on a bill in April that sought to ban reporters from “anti-Iranian” American and British media organizations from entering the country. That proposed legislation also included an internal ban on contributing to or disseminating news from foreign organizations, with violations punishable by five to 10 years in prison.
But internet access researcher Amir Rashidi told Journalism is Not a Crime that cutting off access to international sites, while retaining access to domains registered in Iran, was a newer tactic. So, too, is the fact that for a few privileged individuals, internet access appeared to have been preserved.
“We recently saw some officials and government-affiliated journalists travel from Tehran to Khuzestan to report that the internet was still connected,” he said. “This was because it was connected – for those journalists and government employees.
“This is what we mean by 'class-based internet': the categorization of citizens as ‘insiders’ or ‘outsiders’. As an independent party, you do not have the right to internet access during unrest; only those with prior approval to spread the regime's propaganda do.”
No Winners in Iran’s Internet Censorship Game
In Iran, the state-run Telecommunication Infrastructure Company serves as the gateway between local connections and the world wide web. This firm is responsible for deciding which portions of the internet users in Iran (or at least those without a VPN or censorship circumvention software installed) can connect to at a given time.
“It's like letting you move from the first floor of a building to the fifth floor, but you don’t have the right to actually leave the building,” Rashidi said. “Currently and for 12 days now, access to the global [non-Iranian] internet has been totally cut off in Khuzestan.”
Rashidi believes that US and international sanctions against Iran have worsened the extent of domestic censorship. Iranians now rely more than ever on domestic cloud service Abravan instead of Google, and on e-marketplace Digikala instead of Amazon.
Sanctions on the IT sector also make it harder for Iranians to store their personal data on secure servers abroad. This has a knock-on effect for journalists. Recently the Iranian judiciary pulled the plug on the website Memari News; had the agency’s reporters been able to upload stories via an external ISP, they would at least still be accessible to Iranians with a VPN.
For years, internet freedom activists and experts have been concerned that the Islamic Republic wants to implement a Chinese-style firewall in Iran, with the citizenry locked out of all but local equivalents of otherwise-global websites and applications. But implementing the long-planned, sanitized “National Information Network” would come at an enormous cost that at present the Iranian government simply cannot afford. Probably for this reason, on Monday MPs also postponed a previous plan to implement new punishments for Iranian users of foreign social media platforms such as Instagram.
Worth mentioning is the fact that the Iranian regime would have more hard cash at its disposal to develop the so-called NIN had it not spent untold sums supporting proxy groups in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon – including, as IranWire learned this week, through supplying vaccines to Hezbollah. In the circumstances it comes as little surprise that one of the chants heard on the streets of Tehran yesterday was: "Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, I will sacrifice my life for Iran."
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