Iran’s largest mobile phone networks and Internet providers have gone offline, in the Iranian government’s blow to citizens’ sources.
Amid weeks of growing anti-regime protests, the Iranian authorities have imposed the longest internet shutdown in the country’s history, effectively disrupting external communication for more than 80 million Iranians in November last year.
In an unprecedented crackdown, regime forces killed more than 300 protesters and arrested more than 7,000 people. When access was finally restored on November 23, almost half of the country did not yet have access to go online.
Nine months after the November break, Iranians are still living in fear of another complete shutdown of the Internet. As authorities tighten their access to the Internet, diaspora-led companies fill the void for Iranians seeking a way to get around censors.
They found a lifeline: old technology
On November 15, as Iranian authorities moved online to impose their authority, Yahyanejad made sure in Los Angeles that people at home downloaded their Toosheh satellite archiving app. “It was a very small window,” says Yahyanejad. “Once they were completely disconnected, I wasn’t sure they would be able to download the software.”
Launched by Yahyanejad in 2016, the technology aggregates uncensored content, such as news articles, YouTube videos and podcasts, and sends it to Iranian homes directly via satellite TV.
When Yahyanejad first started developing Toosheh in 2013, it is estimated that 70% of Iranian households owned a satellite dish, while about 20% had internet access. Even though internet access has increased, Toosheh’s satellite technology is a much more reliable source for uncensored content by the state.
The Iranians can install Toosheh’s satellite channel and receive a daily shipment in the form of a packet of files up to 8 gigabytes. Once a user downloads the application, satellite transfers completely bypass the internet.
Yahyanejad says Toosheh gained nearly 100,000 new Iranian users in November 2019. In the absence of an internet connection, it has become the only way for many users to access news from outside the world.
Avoiding censorship: an unwanted tradition
After navigating extensive cyber censorship for more than a decade, Iranians have become technically skilled and able to easily traverse firewalls using foreign proxies and circumvention tools.
“It’s a constant game of mouse and cat,” said Fereidoon Bashar, executive director of ASL19, a Canadian organization that works to help Iranians circumvent censorship on the Internet. The group often works in tandem with Yahyanejad to distribute proxy tools.
Bashar says Iranians are quickly adapting to the ever-changing institutionalized control online. But the last five years of the rule of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani have seen a more severe restriction of internet connections.
Site blocking and calculated internet outages have become easier to enforce: the regime has reduced Iran’s dependence on global networks by pushing a local intranet in order to keep online traffic inside the country.
Toosheh, vital information channel
In the early days of the protest, Toosheh created a “protest news package.” Every evening, after aggregating content from more than 200 publications, Toosheh delivered digital packages containing protest videos that took place in different cities: Tabriz, Qom, Shiraz, Mashhad and others.
They also contained slides on how to stay safe during a protest; crucial news coverage of banned sites such as the New York Times, Voice of America Persian and Deutsche Welle; and an organized compilation of tweets from Iranian politicians.
These packages not only brought news about the outside world to Iran, but also kept Iranians informed about what was happening in their own country.
Disapora remained the only solution
Yahyanjad is among a cohort of Iranians in the diaspora working to fight the regime’s censors. ASL19, the Canadian technology group, worked with him to provide proxy tools to more than half a million Iranians during the November closure.
Bashar, from ASL19, who left Iran in the early 2000s before the tumultuous Green Movement, says Iranians in the diaspora are entering the field because Iranians at home “risk imprisonment, harsh conditions and long sentences” if they are caught creating tools. evasion inside the country.
But even outside Iran, diaspora activists like Bashar and Yahyanejad face huge risks.
For Yahyanejad, who has been actively fighting the censorship of the Iranian regime for more than a decade, last year is proof that his work is even more necessary. “Stopping the internet is a psychological tool designed to terrify people, to convince them that they have no voice,” he says. “The fight against such blockages is important so that we can show people that they are not alone.”