For Iranian protesters, a digital double-edged sword

The anti-government protests in Iran sparked by the death of a young woman in police custody have gone viral, and so on.

The internet is an essential tool for these protesters. For more than a week, millions have shared harrowing videos and vivid online images of confrontations between protesters and Iranian authorities.

They’ve surpassed newscasts and bounced around the globe.

Tehran’s hard-line government has deployed digital trackers and waged an all-out media war on protesters and their supporters — a strategy it used to crush protests in just three days in 2019. Back then, authorities took control of the internet and unleashed a violent crackdown that led to thousands of arrests and up to 1,500 deaths.

It’s different this time. The protests are in their second week and show little sign of abating.

They began on September 16 after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who allegedly flouted the country’s conservative dress code, and quickly capitalized on broader discontent with government corruption and falling living standards. Officials say 41 people have been killed, including protesters and police officers, and 1,200 have been arrested, while rights groups are calling for much higher numbers.

A key reason protesters were able to keep the demonstrations going and the world’s attention: They were ready to fight in cyberspace.

“In 2019, everyone was shocked that authorities could impose a massive internet shutdown, but this time many predicted it would happen,” said Mahbod, a 27-year-old student at Sharif University in Tehran. Like other interviewees, he only gave his first name for fear of reprisals.

Hackers and tech experts worldwide have chimed in to help cyber-savvy activists organize, fight back and dominate in the digital realm – a key battleground that Iran’s leaders seem more than ever unable to control.

Hours after the protests began, internet monitor Netblocks reported a 33% loss of connectivity in Tehran, which later spread to other cities and provinces across Iran.

But activists were quick to outmaneuver the government and turned to Instagram and WhatsApp — some of the few social media sites still working — to call for demonstrations or set up meeting places. They launched a hashtag under the Persian version of #Mahsa_Amini, which was retweeted by around 30 million people despite the shutdown. It has reached more than 100 million users, making it the most-retweeted hashtag in Twitter history, Iranian opposition sources say.

Then on Wednesday the government restricted access to most social media, severely restricting it between 4pm and around 1am, when most of the protests are taking place. Apple and Google Play stores are blocked to prevent people from installing VPN (Virtual Private Network) apps that could allow them to bypass surveillance.

Still, Mahbod’s more tech-savvy friends at the university share information about what software and settings to use. It’s not uncommon for people to have four or five different programs to switch between, depending on the day and region.

“The VPNs we use are much more complex than they were a few years ago,” said Mehdi, a 39-year-old tech geek from Tehran who describes himself as a nerd. “Cheap ones have you changing every three or four days, but the more expensive ones with subscriptions work well.”

Help also came from outside Iran’s borders. Tech collective Anonymous has hacked government websites, including Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On Sunday, it dozed MPs and released lawmakers’ phone numbers and other data.

Meanwhile, the US Treasury Department on Friday eased sanctions by authorizing tech companies to offer Iranian users “secure, third-party platforms and services.”

“As courageous Iranians take to the streets to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, the United States is doubling down on its support for the free flow of information to the Iranian people,” Deputy Finance Minister Wally Adeyemo said in a statement.

“With these changes, we are helping the Iranian people be better equipped to counter government efforts to monitor and censor them,” the statement added.

Hours later, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk said the Starlink satellite system, which relies on a low-Earth satellite network to offer broadband internet, has now been activated in Iran.

Tehran soon blocked access to the Starlink website, and malware-laden dummy activation links were placed in the Iranian Twittersphere to attract apparently anti-government protesters.

State Department spokesman Nasser Kanaani said Saturday that “America is trying to advance its own goals against Iran with hypocrisy” by easing communications-related sanctions but maintaining others.

He added that “attempts to violate Iran’s sovereignty will not go unanswered.”

Iranian tech experts working abroad have also joined the fight. Kooshiar Azimian, who heads the US-based biotech company and is a former Facebook engineer, regularly posts the latest method of accessing internet services in Iran on his Instagram page.

Another US-based Iranian computer scientist, Moshfegh Hamedani, has posted information on Twitter about how to bypass website filters, infuriating programmers working with the government.

A growing number of government officials are threatening punishment for those taking part in the riots.

Iran’s strict judiciary chief Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi said during a visit to police headquarters this week that the protesters, whom he described as rioters, are “the foot soldiers of the enemies of the Islamic Republic”. Echoing previous harsh statements by President Ebrahim Raisi, he said those who resisted the authorities “would not get any leniency”.

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment tweeted that the government wants to limit internet access “so it can oppress people in the dark”.

The best way the United States and other Western allies can help the Iranians is to stop the Iranian government from blocking access to the Internet, he wrote. According to Sadjadpour, the protesters’ best hope for bringing about change is to “connect with each other and with the outside world”.

Special correspondent Khazani reported from Tehran and Times contributor Bulos from Beirut. For Iranian protesters, a digital double-edged sword

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