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Special Features

Shutting Down the Internet to Get Away with Murder

November 19, 2019
Niloufar Rostami
5 min read
Azeri Jahromi, the Iranian Minister of Communication and Information Technology, told ISNA that he is currently not online: "I am not allowed to use the internet at the moment,” he said
Azeri Jahromi, the Iranian Minister of Communication and Information Technology, told ISNA that he is currently not online: "I am not allowed to use the internet at the moment,” he said

Not only has Iran’s domestic media been banned from broadcasting "negative and critical" content about the mass protests against the rise in gas prices for the last four days, authorities also shut down the internet on Saturday, November 16 — cutting Iranians off from the rest of the world. What news and information they can access is now severely limited, and they have not been able to tell others about the situation inside the country.

By shutting down the internet completely, the Iranian government has in fact violated one of the key pillars of human rights, the right to free access to the internet.

The regime has shut down the internet previously. During the 2009 presidential election and nationwide protests in January 2018, the government ordered an internet blackout for several hours. However, this time, the internet has been totally cut off on a continuous basis, and US sanctions have also prevented Iranian citizens from connecting to other global networks.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHCR) adopted a resolution in 2016 condemning governments that deliberately deny their citizens access to the internet, and classifying it as a human rights violation. According to the resolution, "any rights that the people have when they are offline must also be applied and protected online."

However, Iran and other countries, including Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia, opposed the resolution. Iran has violated it twice since its adoption — in January 2018 and November 2019.

Amir Rashidi, an internet security and human rights researcher at the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told me the current block is not comparable to previous times. "In 2009 the internet was not totally shut down but only weakened or disrupted for hours because the national internet had not yet been set up, and had they completely shut down the internet, they would have faced problems. In January 2018 they blocked some social networks or disrupted some applications. The internet was off for only half an hour."

"But this time, we are no longer faced with filtering or disruption to the network," Rashidi said. "This time, the country is faced with a total shutdown. Even a wide range of IP addresses that are usually used for anti-filtering software have also been blocked. The ruling power's attitude is much more violent this time. I think one of the most severe internet crackdowns in Iran's history has happened in the last three days."

Currently only government centers, banks, hospitals, limited numbers of newspapers and news agencies, and a few other services have access to the internet. According to Amir Rashidi, if a citizen manages to connect to the internet, "it does not mean that the internet is connected, it is because the national internet is not yet fully operational and so citizens may sometimes find the opportunity to connect to it]."

US sanctions on internet services have also helped deprive Iranians of free access to the internet. "The Trump administration should reconsider internet sanctions," Amir Rashidi says. "Given the sanctions, no citizen will have access to the internet when the Iranian government disconnects the national internet, which is Iran's only current service. Over the last two years, major companies such as Amazon and Google have closed their services down in Iran. Now when the government shuts down the internet, officials can be relaxed because the people are no longer able to access any other network to connect to the world. Iran has encouraged everyone to use the national infrastructure, and in the absence of a global alternative because of sanctions, people are left with no option but to use the national infrastructure of Iran. While in the past, the system was largely dependent on global services, therefore the Iranian officials could not disconnect it easily. This dependency is disappearing now, and this gives the authorities more power to block and shut down the internet."

Azeri Jahromi, Iran’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology, told the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) that he is not even online at the moment. "I am not allowed to use the internet these days,” he says.

However, according to local journalists, all governmental institutions have internet access, which contradicts Azari Jahromi's remarks.

According to domestic sources, over the last few days, more than 1000 Iranians have been arrested in various cities around the country and at least 40 people have been shot dead in several Iranian cities. But no independent media reports have been published due to the government internet shutdown. The authorities have not given the names of the people who have been killed.

The internet and news blackout has caused serious problems for Iranian media based outside the country, media which has always provided news coverage of protests in the past, and which has then been shared on social media.


“Everything is Fine”

The ban on any criticism or negative articles about what has been happening, or about those who have been arrested or killed during street protests, continues. A member of the editorial board of one of Iran’s major newspapers in Iran told me: "This morning [Monday 18 November] one of the members of the editorial board told us to write good-sounding stories about the future and that the people have a wrong interpretation of the rise in gas prices. Write that everything is fine and things will get better, and so on."

He talked about the huge gap between these editorial guidelines and the reality on the streets. ”We have been seeing a huge amount of special guards on the streets for days now, attacking cars and the people in the street. Skipping over all of this and coming inside the newspaper office and writing about something else does not make sense. I prefer not to write anything rather than say that everything is fine to deceive the people. In general, many newspapers have followed this path and have kept silent."

According to reports by organizations dealing with internet freedom and governance, only seven percent of the Iranian internet is currently working. 

Another journalist told me that some newspapers have been given access to restricted internet service that runs very slowly and is constantly disrupted. State-run news agencies, or those which are only partially linked to the state but loyal to the regime, have better access. These include ISNA, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) and Fars.


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