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Technology

Instagram Disruption: A Test Run for Precision Filtering in Iran?

August 23, 2022
Maryam Dehkordi
5 min read
For several days last week, some Iranians trying to get onto Instagram experienced the same 'tiered access' sometimes imposed on protest-hit areas
For several days last week, some Iranians trying to get onto Instagram experienced the same 'tiered access' sometimes imposed on protest-hit areas
In some provinces, those who tried to access Instagram without a filter breaker were sent to a digital directory of government-approved websites
In some provinces, those who tried to access Instagram without a filter breaker were sent to a digital directory of government-approved websites
The Iranian parliament is poised to approve a bill that would give security forces control over internet gateways in Iran
The Iranian parliament is poised to approve a bill that would give security forces control over internet gateways in Iran

For several days last week, Instagram users based in Iran reported difficulty in accessing the popular platform: one of very few major social networks not officially blocked by the regime. But all of a sudden, Instagram was temporarily unreachable via home internet services – but not via mobile – in Tehran, and fully down in other Iranian cities.

This odd state of affairs led some Iranians to speculate the government was using Instagram as a testing ground for its long-planned, comprehensive internet filtering system. The Ministry of Communications issued no comment beyond blaming the users themselves.

 

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Sahra and her husband run a small online shop that sells ceramic and porcelain handicrafts. Four years ago they converted their garage into a workshop and set up a website, and today they deliver to homes and businesses across the country.

For the couple, Instagram is a pivotal means of advertising their wares. But Sahra told IranWire they have experienced intermittent problems for years now: “We have a few days of trepidation almost every month.

“We worked long and hard to build our business. We built up a reputation bit by bit and earned our customers. We used our creative vision to make ourselves worthy of people’s trust. Each time the internet get disrupted, I worry we’ll be finished – but in the last few days my anxieties have been much, much worse.

“In Tehran, we couldn’t get onto Instagram through the home network. We had no problems on mobile, so we thought we had an issue at home. But then I talked to my husband’s family, who live in northern Iran, and apparently everybody there was having difficulty accessing Instagram. My sister-in-law told me they could only connect using a filter breaker.”

Amin, another Instagram user, has a business selling chandeliers. “We sell both online and in person,” he said. “For us, Instagram is a showroom to promote and advertise. For the last couple of days it’s been very difficult to get onto my Instagram account. I get a 100 error messages before I can connect once. It takes ages to upload a 30-second video or an Instagram story. And I can’t get to my direct messages either. I have no idea if anyone has sent me any messages or not.”

A third Instagram user, Shadi, said she was confident the service had been deliberately blocked where she lives. “When I clicked on Instagram links without a filter breaker on, I was taken to the Peyvandha [“Links”] webpage [a directory of government-approved webpages that Iranians are taken to on trying to access blocked sites], exactly as happens when I try to go to pages that are filtered in Iran.

“But when I launched the filter breaker it opened the Instagram page, although it was very slow. Today, I couldn’t open Telegram even with the filter breaker on. I believe that they are very subtly ‘protecting’ us.”

Here Shadi was referring to an infamous bill currently going through the Iranian parliament, variously called the Bill to Protect the Rights of the Cyberspace Users or simply the “User Protection Bill”.

If made law, its provisions would pave the way for security forces to monitor internet gateways in the country, and for foreign platforms – from Google to Hotmail to Amazon to Instagram – to be permanently banned.

Siamak Aram, an assistant professor of computer science and data analytics at Harrisburg University in Pennsylvania, told IranWire that in his view, the recent disruptions were part of the same overall drive to restrict free internet access as the User Protection Bill: “The regime is pursuing a plan to filter the internet at different levels, and using different techniques. The interruptions of the past few days were a dry run.

In still another part of Iran, he said, a different issue with Instagram had been observed over the past week: “The new issue was that whenever users signed out of their Instagram account they needed a security code to sign in again. But they never received the code, because the text sent by Instagram was filtered by the Iranian mobile services.

“The fact that the disruption of access to Instagram has followed a different pattern in each Iranian city and region shows they’re evaluating different techniques.”

 

The Denials

On August 15, the website Zoom It, which reports on digital technologies, wrote of the state of affairs in Iran:  “It seems that if software to change the IP address is used, this problem goes away. So it seems likely the disruptions are limited to Iran.”

Faced with a welter of complaints, Iran’s national Telecommunication Infrastructure Company issued a statement on August 16 that blamed “disruptions in communication lines in northern Iran” for the lack of Instagram access, and claimed  the problems had been resolved.

That memo itself came shortly after deputy communications minister Reza Bagheri Asl had

denied  the quality of internet services in Iran had degraded. Instead, he claimed, there had been an unusually high volume of traffic.

None of this explained the different levels of access to Instagram in different areas, or why any attempt to access Instagram was taking users to the Peyvandha directory. And up until the end of last week, people were still contacting IranWire reporting difficulties getting on Instagram.

“The agencies responsible for internet service provision do not believe they need to tell the public in general terms, or the experts in specific terms, what the reasons for the disruptions are. Iran is one of only a handful of countries in the world that treat users this way, that behaves this irresponsibly toward individuals and businesses.”

 

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