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VPNs Bypass the Internet Blackout in Iran
Ideas Beyond Borders is providing VPN access so the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights can show the world what’s happening inside Iran
When the internet went dark in Iran, Sepi Beigi started to panic. The last time Iranian authorities imposed sweeping internet cuts was in 2019, when an estimated 1500 people were killed as Iranian authorities shot protesters at close range in what became known as bloody November.
Unable to communicate with friends and family inside Iran Beigi, who lives in London, is latched to her phone, desperate for updates but terrified of the news this might bring. “I can’t do anything, I just share messages on social media to try and spread the message. I feel so helpless,” she says.
Protests broke out on September 16 following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody. Amini, who was from the country’s Kurdish minority, was visiting the country’s capital Tehran when she was hauled in for questioning by the country’s notorious morality police for violating Iran’s strict dress codes for women.
Her death three days later has sparked widespread fury, particularly among women at the forefront of the protests, who have burned hijabs and cut their hair off in defiance of the regime. The Iranian authorities claim she died of natural causes following heart failure or a brain stroke; protesters have dismissed these conclusions as the movement swells into the largest anti-government demonstrations for several years.
On Saturday, Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi vowed to “deal decisively with those who oppose the country’s security and tranquility,” a warning echoed the following day by the country’s judiciary chief, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, who called for “decisive action without leniency.”
At least 41 people have been killed so far, according to official figures, but rights groups say the real death toll is likely to be much higher, with security forces opening fire and hurling tear gas canisters at protesters in a brutal crackdown that echoes the violence of 2019. However, the internet blackout has made it difficult to determine the true number of casualties as Iranians outside the country wait desperately for news.
“They have shut down the internet in Iran and people are fighting without anything, just their bare hands and the world should know, should support”, said Shirin Naseri, speaking at a protest in London on Saturday. “We do not want the compulsory hijab, we want freedom, we want women’s revolution.”
Ideas Beyond Borders is working to improve internet access for volunteers documenting rights violations by security forces in Iran. On Sunday, IBB provided VPN access to the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights, which focuses on violations against Kurdish communities in Iran. The organization is working with volunteers on the ground to share evidence of violence by Iranian security forces against protesters.
“These are the people providing video footage, photos and reports of real-time events so it’s vital that they are able to share it with the outside world and prevent the regime from covering up the atrocities being perpetrated,” says Hussein Ibrahim, Iraq country director at Ideas Beyond Borders.
With most of the IT infrastructure in Iran controlled by the regime’s security forces, they have shut down public and private internet servers to conceal their “massive and brutal violence” on the streets, says Faraz Firouzi, legal advisor of the Hengaw Organization for Human Rights.
“The regime is cutting internet access to impede the free flow of information so that the world won’t see their violence and oppression,” Firouzi says. “By accessing this VPN, we will be able to provide authentic news on the brutality of the regime so that its true image will be broadcasted to the world.”
Eleven days after news emerged of Amini’s death, protesters are refusing to give up with people from cities and provinces across Iran taking to the streets. “It is completely different from the previous protests. We have never been this united before. Iranians, across the globe, we have never been this united,” Naseri said.
Over the weekend, demonstrators massed in numerous cities around the world to share their support, with protests in countries including the UK, US, France, Turkey, Greece and Germany.
In London’s Trafalgar Square on Saturday, hundreds gathered to demand basic freedoms in Iran and an end to the regime’s draconian dress laws for women. “By controlling how women dress and by controlling women’s bodies, they are actually controlling the whole of society,” said Tina Rashidi, holding a banner that read ‘A woman’s place is in the revolution.’
Others voiced concern over the internet blackout. “They cut out the internet, there’s no social media working, no Whatsapp working, so they can’t let people outside the country know what’s happening in Iran. So that’s what we’re trying to do here, to let people know what’s happening in Iran,” said Mohammed, who withheld his last name.
Internet blackouts are part of a wider cyber surveillance system used by Iranian authorities to hinder mobilization efforts among protesters and hide police brutality from the outside world. Internet watchdog Netblocks described the latest blocks as “the most severe internet restrictions since the November 2019 massacre.”
Speaking to CNN, Alp Toker, the director of Netblocks, emphasized the the impact of the disruptions, saying loss of connectivity has become a “central fear that’s etched into the minds of Iranians, particularly post-2019.”
In recent days the US government has taken steps to expand internet access in Iran to help people “counter the government’s efforts to surveil and censor them,” deputy US treasury secretary Wally Adeyemo said on Friday in a statement outlining guidance on expanding the range of internet services available to Iranians.
This includes lifting sanctions restrictions on private companies offering uncensored internet access to Iranians, which has allowed Elon Musk to activate Starlink, its satellite broadband service in Iran. However the network, which provides high-bandwidth internet connections to individual users, requires terminals that would need to be smuggled into the country at significant cost.
“What Iran has right now is a new generation that has no fear and is willing to face a great amount of danger, but unfortunately, the Iranian government has shown that internet blackouts come with the implicit threat of violence against peaceful protesters. We hope that our support will keep them safe, and connected to us all concerned about their freedom and future.” says Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, founder and president of Ideas Beyond Borders.
In the meantime, Iranian security forces are targeting Kurdish cities, where the protests have been particularly intense. In recent days they have carried out drone strikes and artillery attacks on the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq near the border with Iran, where the regime claims militant Kurdish separatist groups operate.
Hengaw said in a statement on Tuesday that it had identified more than 300 people detained by Iranian security forces but indicated that the total figure is much higher.
Speaking to IBB, Firouzi added: “It is vital to provide the world with this on-the-ground footage in order to prevent more massacres of Iranians by the regime while declaring to the world that Iranians are calling for a regime change and their claim is not limited to a change of hijab regulations.”
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