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In protests over death of Mahsa Amini, internet is key to planning. Can Iran block access?

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The Iranian anti-government protests, which were sparked by the death of a young woman in police custody, have gone viral, and more.

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

They dominated news broadcasts and ricocheted around the world.

Tehran’s hardline government has deployed digital trackers and waged an all-out media war against protesters and their supporters – a strategy it used in 2019 to quell protests in just three days. At the time, authorities took control of the internet and unleashed a violent crackdown that resulted in thousands of arrests and up to 1,500 deaths.

This time it’s different. The protests are well into their second week and show few signs of waning.

They began on September 16 after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who allegedly violated the country’s conservative dress code, and quickly tapped into wider discontent over government corruption and falling living standards. Officials say 41 people have been killed, including protesters and police, and 1,200 arrested, while rights groups claim much higher figures.

One of the main reasons the protesters were able to keep the protests going and keep the world’s attention: they were ready to fight in cyberspace.

“In 2019, everyone was shocked that the 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 around the world have weighed in to help savvy cyber activists organize, fight back and dominate in the digital realm – a key battleground that Iran’s leaders, more than ever, seem unable to to control.

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

But activists quickly outwitted the government, turning to Instagram and WhatsApp – some of the few social media sites still functioning – to call for protests or set up meeting points. They launched a hashtag under the Persian version of #Mahsa_Amini which was retweeted by some 30 million people despite the shutdown. It has reached over 100 million users, making it the most retweeted hashtag in Twitter history, according to Iranian opposition media.

Then on Wednesday, the government restricted access to most social media, sharply reducing it between 4 p.m. and around 1 a.m., when most protests take place. Apple and Google Play stores are blocked to prevent people from installing virtual private network (VPN) apps that they could use to circumvent surveillance.

Still, Mahbod’s more tech-savvy university friends 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 self-proclaimed 39-year-old computer scientist from Tehran. “The cheaper ones you need to change 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 into government websites, including that of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. On Sunday, he doxxed MPs, releasing lawmakers’ phone numbers and other data.

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

“As brave Iranians take to the streets to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, the United States redoubles its support for the free flow of information to the people of Iran,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in a statement. a statement.

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

Hours later, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk said the Starlink satellite system, which relies on a satellite network in low Earth orbit to deliver high-speed internet, was now activated in Iran.

Tehran quickly blocked access to the Starlink website, and bogus activation links containing malware were planted in Iran’s Twitter sphere in an apparent attempt to lure anti-government protesters.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said on Saturday that by easing communications-related sanctions but maintaining others, “America is seeking to advance its own goals against Iran with hypocrisy”.

He added that “attempts to violate Iranian sovereignty will not go unanswered.”

Iranian tech experts working abroad have also joined the fray. Kooshiar Azimian, who runs US biotech company 310.ai and is a former Facebook engineer, gives regular updates on his Instagram page about the latest method of accessing Internet service in Iran.

Another US-based Iranian computer scientist, Moshfegh Hamedani, posted on Twitter about how to circumvent website filtering and excoriated programmers working with the government.

A growing chorus of government officials threatens to punish those who take part in the unrest.

Iran’s justice chief, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejehi, said during a visit to police headquarters this week that the protesters, whom he called rioters, were “the foot soldiers of the enemies of the Islamic Republic”. . Echoing previous harsh statements by President Ebrahim Raisi, he said those who challenge the authorities would not be granted “any leniency”.

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment tweeted that the government wanted to restrict internet access “so they can crack down on people in the dark”.

The best way for the United States and other Western allies to help Iranians, he wrote, is to prevent the Iranian government from blocking internet access. Protesters’ best hope of effecting change, Sadjadpour said, lies in “connecting with each other and with the outside world”.

Special correspondent Khazani reported from Tehran and Times writer Bulos from Beirut.

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