The Unintended Results Of Iran’s Internet Repression
Iran is well known for being a restrictive regime without internet freedom. Websites banned in Iran include Facebook, Twitter and countless other social media and news sites. But young Iranians are tech-savvy and are finding ways to use technology for political ends, as borne out by the latest surge in protests across the country.
Iran is one of the least free countries in the world and it has been that way for a while. Reporters without Borders has ranked Iran as one of the most heavily restricted countries for years, with more than half of the world’s top 500 websites forbidden to people in Iran. Among the many websites and apps that are banned in Iran are Facebook and Twitter, as well as a myriad of unbiased, non-government-approved news sources.
As well as banning so much of the internet, the Iranian government uses active surveillance to monitor what is being said online by people inside Iran and to check up on Iranian internet usage. If you’re caught trying to visit banned sites in Iran you could face legal charges and severe punishments are applied to anyone caught opposing Islamic thought or the Iranian government.
Iran is Tech-Savvy
Despite all of these heavy restrictions, Iranians find ways to access non-approved news and share their thoughts on social media. Over 60% of the population is under the age of 30. These are digital natives who are smartphone owners and tech savvy. They use VPNs and encrypted apps to get around the internet restrictions and surveillance of the Iranian government.
One of the most popular apps in Iran is Telegram, which has 40 billion users – around half of the entire Iranian population. Telegram is known for being heavily encrypted and has the option to set messages to self-destruct within a few hours for extra safety. Messages sent over the app can’t be hacked by the government. It’s also stood up to Iran so far, resisting pressure to share user data with the authorities.
Across a population of 80 million people in a heavily anti-Western country, there are already 20 million smartphones in use. A million new smartphones are hitting the market every month, clearly showing the direction of the citizens. Young Iranians are ready to use technology as an instrument of political dissent.
How Young Iranians are Using the Internet to Bypass Oppression
New apps developed by young Iranians show how hard they’re working to bypass oppression and to bring about social change. Most of these apps are developed by Iranian ex-pats outside of Iran, due to the danger of being seen to work against the government from within the country itself. Incubators and non-profits encourage developers to create apps that help Iranians and could bring about change in the country.
One example is Gershad. It’s like Waze for people who want to avoid Iran’s morality police, the Gasht-e Ershad which arrests people for violating Iran’s modesty laws or Islamic values. Gershad uses crowd-sourced information to warn users where there’s a police checkpoint so that they can avoid it.
Another popular Iranian app is HamDam. It’s ostensibly an app to help women track their menstrual periods and ovulation cycles, but more importantly, it contains vital legal information to help women keep themselves safe from sexual exploitation. HamDam educated women about their reproductive and legal rights as well as imparting sexual education. In Iran, women are not taught about their sexuality and are deliberately kept ignorant about laws regarding marriage, divorce, and sex.
Women suffer far more than men from Iran’s repressive laws which dictate what they wear and give them few rights within marriage and relationships, with hard punishments for any woman who doesn’t wear a face veil in public, for example. So, it’s not surprising that many Iranian-born apps are aimed at helping women. Toranj was developed to educate and support women who are at risk of domestic violence. It includes a database of pro-bono law firms and counseling clinics, educational resources, a legal handbook, and the ability to make emergency calls through the app.
These and many other Iranian apps both reflect a change in Iran and drive it forward. These apps are one aspect of how young Iranians are finding ways to get around the internet repression of Iran.
Social Media Protests in Iran
In the last days of 2017, the first major protests since 2009 rocked Iran. It’s an uprising that is being fought online as much as on the streets. Students and other citizens began protesting on December 28th in anger at the high cost of living, but the protest quickly widened into an attack on the entire regime. Mass demonstrations in Iran’s second city of Mashad and other major cities including Qom and Kermanshah have been coordinated via Telegram. 200 protesters marched against the government in Tehran on Sunday and there are reports of confrontations between police authorities and demonstrators in more than 40 cities across the country.
In response, the government struck out against the internet. The Iranian authorities are very clear in blaming foreign and exiled Iranian journalists for ‘inciting’ the protests and have used that as an excuse to restrict internet access even further.
Around midnight on Saturday, the 30th of December, Iran blocked mobile internet access across the country. The Telegram channel of popular news outlet AmadNews was suspended on Sunday, December 31st before both Telegram and Instagram were blocked entirely. Internet blackouts have been affecting even the use of the best VPNs for Iran to access unbiased news and share updates and information, leaving much of Iran and the rest of the world in the dark.
But, the lack of news and disrupted information lines are making it worse rather than better. In the chaos of news blackouts, protesters aren’t able to meet up, it’s not clear how many people have been arrested or killed in the demonstrations, and fears are running high. Although the Iranian government hopes to kill the protests by killing the internet, it might be that without clear communication and reliable information, the protests just keep growing.