Future Tense

When Will Iran’s Internet Censorship Collapse?

A man with his back to the camera raises his hands and makes a V sign for victory while people crowd around, some on motorbikes; there is smoke and fire in the foreground.
A picture obtained by AFP outside Iran shows a protest for Mahsa Amini. Getty Images

In the wake of the killing of Mahsa Amini by the hijab police (or morality police, as they prefer to call themselves), people across Iran are demonstrating against the government. They’re also turning to the internet to share information and circulate proof of the regime’s crimes. The government has responded the way it normally does in protests: by trying to limit people’s digital access. Instagram, which hosts around two million Iranian businesses, was blocked at the beginning of the current wave of protests. The same happened with WhatsApp, which is reportedly used by over 70 percent of adult Iranians, according to the Iranian Students’ Polling Agency. Add Apple’s App Store, Google’s Play Store, Skype, and LinkedIn to this list.

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Worse, Iran has been shutting down access to the internet for hours every day. Analysts estimate the cost of one day of shutting down the internet in Iran to be around $37 million. Still, the government is willing to incur this loss to guarantee its survival. These days, when the free circulation of information is the most vital pillar of support for those who seek change in the streets, the Islamic Republic’s internet filter is more impenetrable than ever.

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Initially, the Islamic Republic tried to control the internet using the same methods it had used in the past.

The complete prohibition against VCRs had gradually given way to the publication of regime-curated content. Several media companies took advantage of the opportunity. By censoring foreign movies and producing various programs and shows, they sought to turn a tool whose presence would not be tolerated before then into a cultural opportunity.

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Satellite TV was a more significant challenge. In the era of videocassettes, there were almost no alternatives, other than a few state TV channels, to entertain the domestic audience.
Satellite receivers, however, had significantly increased the number of choices. Audiences could switch channels and watch their favorite show simply by pressing a button.

The regime responded by prohibiting the ownership of satellite receivers. For a time, recurrent images of police breaking into buildings and throwing down satellite dishes filled the pages of domestic newspapers. But the presence of satellite receivers in Iranian homes gradually became normal—there were simply too many for the government to remove them all.

So it turned to jam the satellite signals. Satellite operator companies, such as Eutelsat, complained. Even some officials objected, but to no avail. It is still impossible to watch satellite channels broadcast outside Iran in some cities and at certain hours due to the jamming.

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Today, Iran’s internet filtering follows the same path: The government is busy developing halal versions of things it dislikes (which are a lot) while censoring the others as much as possible. When it comes to cultural and social matters, this is the only strategy the Islamic Republic is familiar with. That is why more than 5 million websites are blocked in Iran, according to judicial officials.

The 2009 election and subsequent protests were the Iranian authorities’ first experience of the internet’s role in social movements, which fundamentally changed their tolerance. The internet had morphed into a political weapon that could unravel their web of lies. Soon, the number of military and political figures opposed to a free internet increased. After government-affiliated newspapers reported on the protesters’ intent to overthrow the regime, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter were permanently blocked. This was the beginning of the regime’s more aggressive approach to staunching the free flow of information through cyberspace.

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Since then, the government has enacted many and increasingly stricter laws to control cyberspace.

Censorship and filtering by the Islamic Republic are merciless.  Iran has followed the Chinese model for its internet governance. Just as China has blocked access to most Western services and created domestic replicas to monitor and track all communication, so has Iran. The Islamic Republic has invested millions of dollars in launching a domestic version of foreign applications like YouTube and Telegram and creating exclusive infrastructures inside the country.

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Similarly, there are two types of online networks in Iran: the internet (constantly disrupted and severely censored); and the intranet (an isolated local network that the government is trying to impose on citizens as the internet). Even mobile and internet service providers offer “local internet” as part of their internet packages.

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During the protests of 2019 (known as Bloody Aban), the regime cut off the access of 85 million Iranians to the internet for one week, imposing a total blackness. Only a fake version of the internet was available during those seven dark days when thousands of people were killed and injured in Iran.

More websites and applications are blocked daily, frustrating internet users throughout the country. During the protests of 2017-2018, the government blocked the access of more than 40 million Iranian users to Telegram messenger. For many, this was their only online business platform. When Telegram was blocked, the number of virtual private networks users in the country exponentially increased. The government-affiliated VPN mafia was benefiting, but constant disruptions in the connection, slow internet speed, and bandwidth shortage have made using the internet via VPN increasingly unpleasant.

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However, Iranian authorities have not achieved their desired outcome. No one really wants to use the knockoff applications. Videos uploaded by Iranians on the blocked YouTube are seen more than those uploaded on its replica. Despite being blocked, Twitter is the primary source of first-hand news from inside Iran, and Telegram channels are still one of the leading news sources.

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Given all this, the Islamic Republic sees only one likely path for controlling the internet: replacing the internet with its local network, blocking all protocols for bypassing censorship, and, on a more general level, classifying internet access based on users’ professions. Even now, some journalists close to the inner circle have access to the internet on their mobile phones, where websites such as Twitter are freely accessible.

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The development of technologies giving free access to information has always worked against dictatorships. Filtering the internet is a cat-and-mouse game between the censor and the anti-censorship service provider.

Emerging technologies like Starlink have created a faint hope. Although the U.S. Office of Foreign Asset Control has lifted some sanctions, using Starlink terminals in Iran is technically and logistically challenging. Most importantly, Starlink, which is expensive, is not an internet alternative for everyone inside the country. But it might be one of the best options for covering and communicating domestic news by activists and journalists when the internet is shut down.

This iron curtain will fall only when digital repression ends. It will end when the current rulers and their like-minded allies are gone, the laws supporting freedom of speech replace the current restrictions, and a modern government that embraces technology takes the place of the radical regime.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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