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Iran ‘smothers’ internet to limit images of protests: activists

Iran imposes strict restrictions on internet access in an effort to limit the sharing of images of protests.

Iran is imposing increasingly strict restrictions on internet access, albeit short of a total shutdown, in an apparent effort to limit the sharing of images of protests that have erupted nationwide, activists say.

Campaigners and Persian-language television channels outside Iran have noticed fewer images of the protests filmed on mobile phones being posted nearly two weeks after the movement that erupted after Mahsa Amini’s death.

Authorities have already restricted access to Instagram and WhatsApp – so far the last remaining unfiltered social media services – and have now taken action against apps like the Google Play Store and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) that try to circumvent local access restrictions.

“It’s still not an internet shutdown, and it’s hard to even describe what they’re doing to the network as ‘shutdowns.’ Perhaps extreme throttling is the best simple term for it,” said Iran’s freedom of expression researcher, Article 19 , Mahsa Alimardani.

“But the disruptions are heavy,” she told AFP, saying the disruptions peaked from late afternoon to midnight, when most of the protests take place.

Restrictions are still lagging behind the total shutdown in November 2019, when a crackdown on less than a week of protests killed at least 321 people, according to Amnesty International.

Videos of protests and alleged abuse by authorities are still filtering through social media channels, but not in the same volume as when the protests first erupted after the death of Amini, who had been arrested by the morality police.

“The authorities seem to have learned how dangerous this is for their economy or general public relations,” Alimardani said. – ‘Massive hurdle’ – Norway-based Iran Human Rights (IHR), which says 76 people have been killed in the crackdown so far, said internet access has been “seriously disrupted or completely cut off” in recent days.

“Internet outages continue to cause delays in reporting” deaths during the protests, it warned.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said: “Twelve days after the protests started, the internet network across the country is still down on a daily basis.”

In response, social media giants have sought help from Iranians, the United States has even agreed on sanctions relief for some software, and tycoon Elon Musk has offered up its Starlink satellite internet network.

But to what extent such measures can help, especially in the short term, remains unclear.

“Internet outages are becoming more common worldwide, including in parts of Iran this week,” Google said in a statement on Twitter, saying its teams were “working to make our tools widely available” following the easing of US sanctions.

“We hope these changes in some small way help people access information securely at this important time,” it added.

Iranians have long used VPNs to access sites blocked in Iran – even government officials, including the foreign minister, have Twitter accounts despite the network being blocked in the country.

But Alimardani described using and accessing VPNs as “hit and miss” for Iranians at the moment with blocking the Google Play Store, a big blow when most Iranians are using Android mobile phones with their Google operating systems.

“This is a huge hurdle to downloading secure and new VPNs that work,” she said.

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