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How the tech-savvy keep protests alive — even after Iran shut down the internet

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Few independent journalists can work in Iran. So in recent weeks, we've mainly seen that country's protests through videos and messages on social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

INSKEEP: This video, taken from a rooftop, shows people fleeing down a street as gunshots sound. Ever since a woman died in police custody, Iranians have both spread and gathered news on the internet. They're fighting to get online just as much as they confront police in the streets. Mahsa Alimardani is following that struggle for information. She's a senior researcher with Article 19, which is a human rights organization based outside Iran.

MAHSA ALIMARDANI: Censorship has been a cat-and-mouse game since the very beginning of the introduction of the internet in Iran. Facebook was quite popular, and it was filtered in 2009. Telegram became quite central between 2015 and 2018, especially Telegram's channels. And so after that, Instagram and WhatsApp really came to replace Telegram. Elements within Iranian media that abide by, you know, state lines are the first to admit how integral Instagram has been to the Iranian economy, with stats that show that it, like, contributes somewhere around a billion dollars to e-commerce industry in Iran.

INSKEEP: Ah, there's money on the line, and that's why parts of the internet have been free up to now. But how did the government respond online as the protests spread on the streets?

ALIMARDANI: So, I mean, immediately as the protests began outside of Mahsa Amini's hospital, at the Kasra Hospital, we started seeing internet disruptions across mobile networks around the hospital area and the areas people started gathering. And then we saw a large focus as the protests spread across the country. We saw a large focus on disabling mobile networks. And so eventually, after a few days, a pattern emerged of mobile curfews. Between, you know, the period of 4 p.m. to about 1 a.m., mobile networks became almost entirely disabled or, you know, extremely throttled or slow. The Supreme National Security Council also announced that they would be implementing disruptions, and they would be blocking Instagram and WhatsApp to maintain national security.

INSKEEP: It's my impression that the government still has not pulled the plug on everything, from what you've said, and it appears that people in Iran are still able to communicate with the outside world. It's just a struggle day by day.

ALIMARDANI: Yes, there has been a large-scale attack on VPNs, so of course, almost every foreign platform has been blocked in Iran. We think they're using very sophisticated and automated deep packet inspection to target the VPNs. And when you do this across a network, it does really severely deteriorate the health of the network and slows down bandwidth and really throttles access.

INSKEEP: I guess we should explain for people who don't use them every day, a VPN is a virtual private network. It's an app you can put on your phone or your computer that allows you to evade censorship controls and keep your communications private unless the government in some way manages to get around that. So people are struggling to communicate, but still communicating in various ways. What can tech companies do now to help them, if they are so inclined?

ALIMARDANI: Google - their Outline VPN has been offering certain credits for people to set up connections themselves and share it with their friends and family in Iran. That has been good. You know, there needs to be more sophisticated VPNs and VPNs that have their software updated perhaps, you know, multiple times a day to deal with the kind of cat-and-mouse game that is happening with the highly sophisticated technology that the authorities are using to target them. A lot of different recommendations have been made to U.S. tech companies, especially, you know, regarding the role that U.S. tech sanctions have placed on them. Google Cloud Platforms, Google App Engine - they have been services that have been blocked inside of Iran, and this has really damaged just the way that infrastructure for the internet has been developed in Iran. So over the years, we've seen these U.S. tech sanctions kind of work hand-in-hand with the authorities' kind of desires and plans to centralize and isolate the Iranian internet from the rest of the world. And so with the lifting of these tech sanctions recently, with the announcement by the U.S. Treasury, they have basically given the legal permission for these companies to now be able to provide those services.

INSKEEP: What are you hearing from Meta, the people that run Facebook and also run Instagram, this platform that's so important in Iran normally?

ALIMARDANI: Instagram has been a very crucial platform for activists and documentation of protests. I mean, Meta has had a lot of problems, I guess, with content moderation. During, you know, the protests that were occurring in May and June in Khuzestan Province especially, there were a lot of problems in terms of, you know, them taking down protest footage documenting hundreds of people on the street, for example, saying death to Khamenei, and, you know, that kind of content being removed.

INSKEEP: Oh, someone said that was a death threat, and therefore it has to go, when it's a political slogan in that context, it would seem.

ALIMARDANI: Yes, exactly. So we were having a lot of problems with those policies, you know, not being necessarily contextualized to what are, you know, traditional protest slogans in Iran. But the problem really this time around has been the security of the accounts of the protesters that we're seeing on the streets, the ones that are getting arrested and detained. They are, you know, Gen Z, and they're extremely online, and so - and they're extremely vocal. So suddenly, you know, you get inundated with friends and family getting in touch with, you know, different human rights organizations, flagging that, you know, so-and-so has been arrested and their accounts need to be secured or else, you know, the authorities will be able to access it. They will find more incriminating evidence on it, etc., etc. And so that kind of support has been really crucial during these protests, which is getting the platforms to provide rapid response help for different protesters.

INSKEEP: Mahsa Alimardani, thanks so much.

ALIMARDANI: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Mahsa Alimardani is with Article 19, a human rights group.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.