HomeMiddle EastMahsa Amini and the future of internet repression in Iran

Mahsa Amini and the future of internet repression in Iran

The death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman whose family knew her as Jîna Mahsa Aminî, in September 2022 has remained the catalyst and central rallying cry of almost half a year of escalating protests in Iran — protests that have, like many before, and like many will in the future, lived as much online as they have on the ground. What is clearer than ever is that the Iranian state’s relationship to dissent will continue to be predominantly mediated by its practices and attitude toward freedom of information, which, today, largely remains a question of internet access. It is not a coincidence that it is the face and death of a young woman, as well as the arrests and executions of many others, including minors, that have continued to drive protesters into the streets, in defiance of legitimate fear of arrest or execution.

Many 21st-century justice movements are driven by the undeniable emotional appeal made possible by social media, where the literal faces and details about the lives of those lost to state violence can circulate widely and freely, and where the creativity and diversity of analysis often made possible by information shared online allows protesters to see themselves in the lives lost, and to feel a fuller scope of grief and rage that may not be accessible in the offline world. As a result, Iran, along with many of its neighbors, has become almost frantic in its concern over the means of digital communication that have both helped to amplify the message and mission of protesters and other forms of dissent. Observers should watch closely in the coming months and years to see how the state’s revamped methods of internet control have evolved, as well as for clues about how state behavior will be shaped by its self-perception and messaging capacity on the internet. In general, two broad themes from the protests that began in 2022 provide a useful template for understanding how the future of internet-enabled dissent in Iran will continue to evolve.

Increased vectors of vulnerability: Protected and marginalized groups

It has long been a truism that methods of censorship and discrimination online are often deliberately or indirectly first tested on the most vulnerable and disenfranchised groups who use them. From gendered violence and harassment and hate speech online to encoded racial bias in facial recognition and security software, upgrades in tech-enabled repression are often made possible by first targeting groups that have less choice and agency in the methods of communication available to them, as well as much less freedom to opt out. What the protests in Iran have made clear is that state behavior in internet repression will most likely continue to be designed according to the particular vulnerabilities of marginalized groups in the country — particularly as executions, harassment, and other forms of state violence increasingly target minors, women, LGBTQ communities, ethnic and religious minorities, and rural communities.

It is no accident, in other words, that the protests have centered on women’s rights and personal autonomy, as well as intersected directly with repression of Iran’s ethnic Kurdish minority. As is the case globally, slowly opening norms around ideas of gender and sexuality have largely proliferated as a result of freedom of exploration online — and, correspondingly, backlash against these openings has been amplified online as well. The highly symbolic and visual nature of Iran’s modesty laws has translated into a culture of online protest that has swiftly co-opted the state’s own symbols against itself. Content generation on social media and other platforms about the protests has largely been driven by and around women, with young women in particular utilizing popular video-sharing formats on apps like TikTok to blend cultural and political commentary, in the form of make-up or fashion tutorials that are designed to draw attention to the injustice of Mahsa’s death, while cleverly evading the platform’s moderation of politically charged content. Iran will likely continue to ramp up its use of social media surveillance and facial recognition technology to track and target people who violate strict modesty and dress codes, including the “improper” wearing of the hijab that was the pretext for Mahsa’s arrest, and which led directly to her death. Meanwhile, it was the Kurdistan Province in western Iran that experienced the country’s only total internet shutdown in 2022, with the networks MCI and IranCell later reportedly blocking the transmission of SMS and other messages for the crime of including Mahsa’s name. Although such total internet blockages are prohibitively expensive and disruptive, targeted shutdowns on a geographical or linguistic basis will likely continue to be an effective method of silencing dissent in key areas and for marginalized groups, along with the state’s existing practice of pervasive blocking of websites affiliated with advocacy for vulnerable groups.

Censorship by design: Building repression into national infrastructure

Like many of its peers in the quickly evolving internet censorship space, Iran has continued to build a strategy of internet surveillance and repression into expanding areas of state legal, financial, and political infrastructure. Some of this infrastructure will continue to take the form of strategic legislation, such as the so-called User Protection Bill, which was rushed through the Iranian parliament at the beginning of 2022. The bill consolidates even further control of Iran’s internet infrastructure in the hands of the state’s armed forces and security agencies, and also obligates international tech companies to designate a legal national representative to ensure compliance with local Iranian content laws. (This latter requirement, which will come up against tech companies’ obligations under the ongoing U.S. sanctions, is an increasingly common feature of equivalent internet control laws in countries such as Turkey, reinforcing the reality that states with repressive internet infrastructure often rely upon each other for cues and inspiration.) Although the justification of further arrests and executions on the basis of internet freedom laws is troubling, what is perhaps more weighty is the state’s more material methods of internet repression. It is already the case that a consortium of private business entities owned by the paramilitary arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps owns at least half of the shares of the Telecommunications Company of Iran, and it is likely that the lines between the private and public entities affiliated with telecommunications in the country will continue to blur. Such control also opens the door to even more well developed tools of internet blockages on the part of the state, under the ostensible arm of civil security. Of particular concern is the state’s growing sophistication in internet outages, including in the form of “digital curfews,” which allow the government to shut down access to mobile networks during evening hours when most protests are likely to occur, and restore it again in the morning. While the notorious 2019 internet shutdown took place over five days, the more recent shutdowns last longer but occur between specific hours, giving the government more space to enforce communications control during the periods that are most crucial for protesters, while also allowing economic activity to continue more or less as usual. The state has also increased its capacity to block specific websites and secure internet protocols for the purpose of making web traffic more surveillable and less secure. A sharp increase in Iranian state blockages of encrypted Domain Name Service (DNS) around the time of the start of protests in September 2022 is part of a larger series of tools designed to limit web access, alongside the blocking of application stores, communication apps like WhatsApp and Skype, and more. Finally, the practice of blocking and criminalizing virtual private networks (VPNs), tools which can allow users to evade internet censorship or blockages, has exploded, limiting the scope of workarounds for Iranians in desperate need of internet access.

The way ahead: Grassroots power and international solidarity

While regimes around the world watch closely, Iran has continued to pioneer the strategic use of state power to shut down freedom of internet communications, and in so doing, to violently suppress dissent. Perhaps one of the most pervasive forms of this repression involves targeting Iranian technologists and digital rights experts, many of whom, such as the wrongfully detained technologist Jadi Mirmirani, have faced increasing insecurity, and remain on the frontline in helping the outside world to understand the full implications of Iran’s internet censorship (and, crucially, how it might be replicated elsewhere). The international community, and the U.S. private sector in particular, have significant weight to bring to bear in combating tech-enabled repression in Iran, including by potentially restoring access to circumvention tools like domain fronting, and by continuing to rule in favor of freedom of speech for protesters, as in the case of Meta’s recent ruling allowing a prominent Iranian protest phrase on its platforms. While the state’s tools for internet suppression are not infallible, 2022 showed that they may be infinitely adaptable, and any solutions must center the value of freedom of information as an inherent right — in Iran and around the world.

 

Eliza Campbell is a writer and researcher focusing on the intersection of human rights and technology. She is the former director of MEI’s Cyber Security and Emerging Technology Program, and was previously a researcher at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, and a Fulbright fellow in Bulgaria.

Photo by Jonas Walzberg/picture alliance via Getty Images


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