Internet Shutdowns and Censorship, in Iran and Beyond

Justin Hendrix / Nov 17, 2022
Students at Amirkabir University in Tehran protest against Iran's government, September 2022. Darafsh/Wikimedia Commons

Audio of this conversation is available via your favorite podcast service.

According to the BBC, to date at least 348 Iranian protesters have been killed and nearly 16,000 arrested in women-led protests that erupted three months ago after the death Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died in custody after being detained by morality police for allegedly breaking the strict rules on the wearing of hijabs.

One way the regime has responded to these antigovernment protests is to block access to the internet, independent news sites and social media and communication platforms. To talk more about how these tactics are being applied in Iran and around the world, and what policymakers in democratic countries can do to help dissidents on the ground, I spoke to two experts on digital and human rights:

  • Yasmin Green, CEO of Jigsaw and author of a recent piece in Wired on Iran's internet blackouts
  • Kian Vesteinsson, Senior Research Analyst for Technology and Democracy at Freedom House and one of the authors of the 12th annual Internet Freedom Report

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the discussion.

Justin Hendrix:

I'm very pleased to have both of you here today to talk about internet shutdowns. Yasmin, you've just published a piece in Wired Magazine on the subject and Kian just put out the 12th Internet Freedom Report from Freedom House, which delves into this topic as well.

Yasmin, I want to start with you. You lead off with the situation in Iran and what we're seeing there. Can you perhaps give us the lay of the land in terms of how the regime's using internet shutdowns as part of its bid to quell protest?

Yasmin Green:

A bit of my origin story because it's relevant to this. I'm both Iranian and was born in Iran, and have family there. And also the group that I now run, Jigsaw, was started 12 years ago with kind of free expression and ending repressive censorship as one of our goals. And it's funny-- I'm going to steal Kian's thunder here-- but in the latest report it's like the 12th consecutive year of increased repression, and it was just funny, that's exactly how long we've existed. And we were so optimistic then that, by this time, not only would things have not gotten worse, they would've gotten a lot better. And I think Iran is the real poster child of a country where the government was as excited about using technology to further its goals as the people were to further theirs.

So I have a very personal as well as a professional connection to what has been happening in Iran in terms of the government becoming better equipped to surveil, to interject with attacks like malware and also to block, ultimately, the internet. So since the revolution there a little over 40 years ago, there has been a repressive Islamic Republic of Iran government and they are very restrictive in terms of the information that they allow people to have. And during protests, there was The Green Movement in 2009 protest a few years ago actually about the economy and then the protests that erupted about 40 days ago when a woman died in the custody of the morality police, the police who are charged with upholding the moral code of Iran and it ignited a ground swell of resistance against the Iranian government and they are cracking down brutality on protestors.

Another reason to feel sympathetic to what's happening in Iran is that the protest is being led by young people and women who are prevented from having equal rights by the law. Have to cover their hair, are not allowed to go out alone, travel alone without permission, et cetera. So the government has been experimenting, actually we can talk about this a little later, with different types of censorship, but ultimately hundreds of people have died and the government is both shutting down the internet regionally. The 40 day anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini, the woman who died in custody, was a couple of days ago so they blocked internet access in the region where she was from. They also experimented with a curfew. So after 4:00 PM in the evenings, the cell phone service, internet access was down because they didn't want people to have access to the internet on the move in the streets because they're trying to prevent people from being able to connect with each other and the outside world.


You note that this is not an isolated incident. Of course, we're seeing this behavior around the world, many governments experimenting with a combination of internet shutdowns and new forms of censorship.

Yasmin Green:

That's right. This is data now from Access Now, but since 2016 there have been 225 internet shutdowns in response to protests. And Iran is certainly not alone, but it's important I think to take this moment where the world's eyes are on Iran because of how extraordinary the bravery and the stakes are in Iran to shine a light on what's happening so often in different countries and it's definitely Kian's wheelhouse to tell us more about that.

Justin Hendrix:

Kian, I want to bring you in now. It's the 12th year of the Internet Freedom Report, as Yasmin pointed out. Not a great trajectory on the overall scores, but you do suggest that, at least on this score, on this front, on the issue of internet shutdowns, maybe when we step back up onto the moon and look down at the earth, maybe perhaps there's some positive news.

Kian Vesteinsson:

Let me, I think, start with that note of optimism as well. I think it's incredibly inspiring to see the movement that young people in Iran are building in part online after this very real tragedy and the continuing killings of protestors. And we see this around the world as well, whether it's anti-coup protestors in Sudan taking to the internet to mobilize even while the government is still shutting off services or pro-democracy protestors in Thailand who face cumulatively hundreds of years in prison sentences for their online activities. People around the world still use the internet to push for change, often in the face of really expansive government repression. That's really inspiring and that's probably going to be key to pushing back against this continuing decline of global internet freedom. Now, what we found this year in our 2022 report is that the dynamic that Yasmin is illustrating really drove the global decline of internet freedom.

Governments around the world are trying to carve up the internet to build domestic enclaves that they can more easily monitor and control. We see this playing out in Iran, but also in countries like Russia and China. These governments are enforcing really tight restrictions on online spaces to cut them off from the global internet. Now, we can hit that note of optimism on internet shutdowns, and I certainly want to go to it, but I think it's really important to sort of dive into some of the dynamics that we're seeing in this move towards internet fragmentation. When we use the word internet fragmentation, we're talking about the restrictions that governments are imposing on the global internet in order to silo domestic spaces. And we see this playing out in a number of different ways. Internet shutdowns are one of the most common tactics as well as censorship of international social media platforms and circumvention tools that may be used to subvert those technical restrictions.

The Iranian government has imposed all of those restrictions, including before the protests that we're seeing now. Now, when we talk about internet fragmentation, we're also talking about the shift towards control over internet infrastructure. The Iranian government has really driven this in Iran with the rollout of their National Information Network. Yasmin, I know you've written on this extensively and I'll look forward to diving into it in detail maybe later, but this infrastructural control where the government imposes state barriers between local infrastructure and global internet traffic in order to assert more control over online content and user data has really driven other tactics of fragmentation as well.

Justin Hendrix:

Yes and maybe that is a good place to maybe focus in a little bit on the technology because in some cases, these governments are having to retrofit networks and nodes and introduce new technology and they're learning from each other.

Yasmin Green:

That's right. And when you have the conversation at the layer of the infrastructure, you understand how they do have an upper hand versus the people that want to connect with each other in the outside world. I remember when we started working on the challenge of censorship over a decade ago, I remember thinking about the concept of, or the terminology, the worldwide web and thinking that that's kind of like it's a misnomer because so few people in the world have access to anything worldwide about their internet and some countries where they have the demand and tech savvy, they're trying to create their own intranet, their own version of the internet that will satisfy the needs of their domestic population and China's a fantastic example of that. Other countries are looking to that example for inspiration about how they might be able to be more in control.

Governments that have an authoritarian bent for a full throttle authoritarian want the online information ecosystem to be governed in the same way that they govern their territory in the physical world and having your own search engines and your own social media and your own directories, et cetera, is the path they see to doing that. Now no one's quite emulated China, but Iran is certainly trying and when they did restrict access to the outside web, the global web, they enabled people still to access the domestic web where of course they can see and they can stop the sharing of traffic.

But in order for people to be able to access any of the social media sites, for example, to post videos about protests and brutal crackdowns or to communicate with each other to arrange where they should meet up, they're interested in using services that are not run by the government or not surveilled by the government. So the social media sector, as Kian said, are blocked pretty much anyway, even when there's not a protest. But at this point they were really just blocking access to the outside web, which is where some of the innovation comes in to give people software that could help them access servers outside of the country through a bit of a relay scheme.

Justin Hendrix:

Let's talk a little bit about internet access as foreign policy. US has made announcements that it would like to improve internet access in Iran. There's been some discussion of, and possible implementation of Starlink-- so not to bring Elon Musk into this unnecessarily-- but as potentially an end run around infrastructure in that country. So on some level, of course if you're the Iranian regime, you would regard this as an incursion or an interference in your affairs.

Yasmin Green:

Yes. I'm sure they do. I think they're quite sensitive to the influence of foreign entities, but the question that you're raising highlights the importance of hardware. So we said that because they control the infrastructure domestically, they really can block all of access to the outside if they wanted to. Starlink brings hardware into the country and that's happening to some extent. Obviously a very sensitive time to be trying to bring any hardware into the country for those reasons. The reason that VPNs, Virtual Private Networks-- a type of technology that we've developed on my team at Jigsaw-- the reason that those can be useful when there is at least some access to the outside web is that they don't require you to have your own hardware and they have a smart way to take your request for access to services that are hosted outside of the country to kind of tunnel that traffic so that it isn't seen by sensors and can be returned to you.

Kian Vesteinsson:

I think it's worth acknowledging that targeted sanctions can be an important tool for accountability against governments that are carrying out human rights abuses at scale. But they need to be narrow so as not to incentivize companies to comply so broadly that they're undermining the rights of people in those countries. And I think that's certainly a dynamic that we've seen somewhat play out in this context as a US government rolled back the impact, some of its sanctions on Iran. These are encouraging steps to lessen the impact of sanctions on people in Iran and to expand access to the internet amid all of these technical restrictions imposed by the Iranian government. I do believe that we've seen Iranians accessing circumvention tools to bypass government censorship that they weren't able to access prior to the rollback of some of these sanctions. That's a really important step. And we've seen this play out in other contexts as well.

There were widespread concerns about how sanctions against the Russian government could potentially impact access to internet services for people in Russia as well as in parts of occupied Ukraine. I think civil society organizations mobilized to call on policy makers here in the US to ensure that sanctions imposed in response to this Russian invasion, which I'll say as an aside, is brazen and illegal and deeply undermining global safety and security, to ensure that those sanctions did not impede internet access that was critical for Russians in Russia to raise their voices against the government's actions. After that advocacy, the Treasury Department exempted telecommunication services from US sanctions related to the invasion. That's a very important win and I hope it's something that we'll see replicated in other contexts as well.

Justin Hendrix:

Let's talk a little bit about some of the outside efforts in civil society to reach the Iranian people to help them get access to the internet. And Yasmin, I don't know if Jigsaw, which has so many interests and interventions that it's engaged in, if you've had any effort in that regard.

Yasmin Green:

This takes us back a little bit to the topic of sanctions and the impact they have on Iranians, which is not that they can't necessarily access the technology, but they also can't access the means to pay for that technology. So one of the challenges we've seen, and there was also a risk of this in the Russia context as Kian mentioned, is that when sanctions are imposed upon a population, they don't have access to hardware. Some of the challenges we're encountering with promoting access to the free internet in Iran is yes, server availability, blocking, and also companies being willing to make their services available when there is some grayness around the US government's position on what is protected in terms of safe harbor. But there's also the challenge that even when there is a VPN service, for example, Iranians cannot pay for it.

Companies do not accept payment in the Iranian currency and Iranians cannot open accounts abroad or have access to the US dollar. So the challenges for them are immense. The people are actually very motivated, very tech savvy, but the sanctions environment makes it incredibly difficult for them to access the free internet and therefore stifles their efforts to resist the current government's oppression. Maybe I'll take a second just to explain what it is we're doing in this space.

One of our projects that Jigsaw is developing a VPN platform. It's an infrastructure for others to create VPNs and make them available in countries with repressive censorship. There's a client that you download from app stores or can be siloed. There's the server and then the manager that connects the two. And we are interested in contributing what we can based on our understanding about how censorship works and how to create mechanisms for bringing free access to the internet. Actually it's civil society, in a lot of cases, that are using those building blocks to create their own custom solutions. So in the example of Iran, there's a civil society organization called ASL19 that has innovated on top of the outline infrastructure to, for example, generate a smart way to distribute keys so that people can access the outline servers for free in Iran and they use that.

They have a Telegram-based mechanism for doing that, you can email a special address and get access to keys. So they're taking their understanding of the local dynamics and constraints and their networks to get access to the people who need it. Another civil society partner of ours is nth Link. They've also forked outline and are doing some really smart stuff with server rotations to evade censorship. And there is this, I suppose, pyrrhic victory to becoming a successful VPN in a country where the government doesn't want people to have free access, which is if a lot of people go to your site or go to your server, that's anomalous activity from the perspective of the government and that alerts the sensors that they should block this.

So having a democratization of VPNs brings a lot of benefit to it because then they're all different, it's distributed across different centers of activity, and then there's a diversity of how those offerings show up, which kind of hopefully improves the chance of the collective resilience to government censorship.

Justin Hendrix:

Yeah. Is there other forms of innovation like that that you're seeing that have been effective in some of the countries you studied?

Kian Vesteinsson:

I think certainly the dynamic that Yasmin is illustrating is something that we've seen play out around the world. Civil society is really key to the pushback against government digital repression. Now we've talked about the gloom and doom part of our report, the 12 years of consecutive decline in internet freedom. But we also found this year that a record 26 countries experienced internet freedom improvements. Certainly digital repression is becoming more sophisticated and more widespread, but the efforts that civil society has led to push governments in the private sector to better safeguard human rights online are beginning to yield results.

I can only hope that we see this play out in Iran as well. Of course that will require mass mobilization across many industries and at scale. But we've identified these proven strategies that can prevent or respond to repressive uses of technology as well as online harms like harassment and disinformation. Now Justin, at the start of our conversation, you spoke about our findings on internet shutdowns and we absolutely have seen these dynamics at play here. We've documented how a multi-pronged effort has helped to change the behavior of governments that are seeking to impose internet shutdowns. And these have spanned tactics like strategic litigation, evidence-based research, and multilateral and bilateral engagement by governments.

I should say, when I say internet shutdowns, I'm referring to when governments shut off or throttle fixed or mobile internet services. We also consider whole scale blocks on social media platforms rising to this level in certain cases. We found that in our coverage period from May 2021 to June 2022 14 of the 70 countries that we assess enforced internet shutdowns. That's compared with 20 countries in last year's edition and 22 in the 2020 edition. Now, some caveats here to mention. We're looking at a subset of three years of our 12 years of data. Certainly this trend may change and some of the world's worst abusers of this tactic, like the Iranian government, have continued to impose shutdowns and show no signs of changing this approach. We've also found that other tactics of censorship are becoming more common.

In our coverage period we found that websites hosting political, social, or religious content were blocked in 40 countries. That's also a record high. We're also seeing that governments are more frequently seeking to pass laws that would force companies to take down online content that the government deems problematic. So it could be that what we're seeing is that the tactics of online censorship are changing towards measures that are more narrow or less costly to a country's economy. Now, that's not to take the wind out of the sails of the clear benefits here of the fact that fewer governments imposed internet shutdowns over the past year.

Take Iraq for example. During elections in 2018, the authorities restricted internet connectivity, which cut people off from vital information about voting. Ahead of last October's parliamentary elections, members of civil society, under the auspices of the Keep It On Coalition, mobilized to urge officials to keep the internet connected during the elections. And we saw that there were no disruptions reported during this election cycle. That's really good news.

Justin Hendrix:

Yes and I want to ask you as well, we've talked about various harms to individuals that come from internet shutdowns. You've just mentioned, Kian, maybe they lose access to information that is useful to them and making a choice in an election. We've of course talked about free expression and the ability to get information out with regard to a political protest. Yasmin, in your article in Wired, you talk about a handful of other types of, even more grave, types of impacts that might come from internet shutdowns that emerge from interviews that you all did.

Yasmin Green:

That's right. What I hear when we observe targeted censorship in different countries is that the governments understand the content or the communication that is happening between people, which is arguably scarier. When there's a shutdown, there's a lot of collateral damage. Governments don't want to do it. Of course they will if they feel that they must. But everyone knows that it's a signal to the world and to the population that things are not copacetic. When there are either targeted censorships, so certain websites or certain pages of a website or certain topics, are censored from the internet. That demonstrates a more sophisticated censorship regime and also demonstrates a more sophisticated surveillance regime. And that's where the danger is so high is when people are being watched and they don't understand that that's happening.

And so in the context of Syria where there were constantly internet shutdowns when there was a rise in violence, those two things were correlated. There were also examples of people whose communications were hacked and then who would go missing. So people's lives are at risk when the government can see what they're doing and they don't know it because their communication is not encrypted. The Iranian context is interesting when we talked about thrusting because that's a common technique in Iran. So making websites just load very slowly that people might give up on trying to access them.

And the government actually provides its own VPNs. The way that you say VPN in Farsi is filter shekan, like filter breaker. And people are used to using VPNs just to make their internet go faster. They're not trying to access a site that they understand to be restricted. But of course if the government is providing you your VPN and you have installed government software on your machine to make your machine run faster than you are vulnerable to anything you say or do being used in the most fatal way against you.

Justin Hendrix:

Let me ask you a kind of concluding question here. I'll ask kind of both of you. If there's a sort of western policy maker, perhaps a US policy maker, who may have some purview to make a decision tomorrow that could improve the circumstances in Iran or could potentially improve internet freedom around the world with regard to shutdowns, with regard to internet access, is there something that you would want them to know? I think this conversation about the relationship between economic capacity and sanctions and the ability to evade some of these circumstances is a nuanced kind of point that is worth focusing on, but are there other things that you'd want to bring forward for the policy maker?

Kian Vesteinsson:

There's a couple of different steps that I think policy makers can take here to support people in Iran and also internet freedom more broadly. The first I think is to carefully consider sanctions regimes as we've discussed today to ensure that access to internet tools and circumvention technology is preserved for internet users in Iran. I think that's a very important first step. We've also found in our research, as I mentioned, that civil society really drives resistance to digital repression around the world. And so I think support for civil society groups in Iran and also in the Iranian diaspora and working on digital rights more broadly is a critical plank in this support for the people of Iran.

We've spoken about some really fantastic work that civil society groups are taking in partnership with Jigsaw, but there's a broader effort too to bolster of civil society groups that are mobilizing to support the protests. Now, finally, at the global level. It's important to acknowledge here that policy makers have been slow in addressing the harms that have come with technology. They've often elevated national security and economic considerations over talking about protections for the fundamental rights of people who are on the internet. And that's in part contributed to some of the language that authoritarians and aspiring authoritarians around the world use to justify repressive regulation that will enable them to censor and surveil people at a broader scale. So it's really critical for democracies and policy makers in democracies to recommit to human rights online. At the start, policy makers can seek to reform surveillance laws and protect encryption as well as enforcing data privacy laws that protect users.

This will be a critical message to send in terms of what's acceptable when looking at privacy around the world. Governments should also seek to pass new laws that enshrine broad transparency measures for social media platforms. This will shed light into how platforms operate, inform sustainable policy, and also provide a meaningful alternative to the sorts of laws that we see governments passing to control social media platforms in order to carry out their agendas of censorship and surveillance. And finally, there's all of this fantastic coordination that can be done in forums like the United Nations and the Freedom Online Coalition. Democratic leaders should commit to that, to coordinating more closely to push a global tech policy agenda that puts human rights at the center.

Yasmin Green:

A few challenges that we're facing with promoting access to the internet in Iran that I believe US lawmakers could help with... one is clarifying that there are safe harbor protections for private sector companies and actually also that civil society can operate freely and move money from the US to Iran to help promote this Democratic movement is really essential and the clarity and the protections are not there or university felt. There's also a piece of this that we haven't talked a lot about, which is in the measurement and research into censorship practices, prevalence, and techniques. You often hear about censorship that it's a cat and mouse game, which is just a statement of fact and you want to be as well informed as possible about how to design your technologies to enable people to access the internet and that requires an understanding of the latest censorship tactics.

And again, the sensors are learning from each other. So we need investment in research and that research needs to be shared broadly across the community so that the innovations are the right ones. I also feel that surveillance at the ISP and government level should be part of the conversation that is happening on the hill and also in Europe on commercial espionage and what kind of internet governance and resilience do we want. And let's first bring those things foreground, the things that we think are important in terms of people having safe and free access to the internet and then figure out what kind of framework would bring countries in alignment with those values and create deterrents for those that don't align.

Justin Hendrix:

Last thing. Both of you mentioned the Declaration for the Future of the Internet. Wouldn't that be, to some extent Yasmin, one of those frameworks that would do what you say?

Yasmin Green:

Exactly. I think that's a really promising step. Let's articulate our vision for the free internet and then put a little bit of teeth behind that vision.

Justin Hendrix:

Yasmin, Kian, thank you very much for speaking to me today.

Kian Vesteinsson:

It's a pleasure. Thanks Justin.

Yasmin Green:

Thanks Justin. Thanks Kian.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...