Iran’s Internet Blackouts Are Sabotaging Its Own Economy
Like internet shutdowns, platform blocking, and content filtering are increasingly common levers for authoritarian control around the world, Iran has provided a particularly dramatic case study of the economic impact and humanitarian toll of connection blackouts.
In response to mass government opposition and protests, the Iranian regime launched an extended shutdown in September that drastically restricted all digital communications in the country. And Tehran has ongoing campaigns to slow down connectivity and access to popular services, including Meta’s Instagram. However, dragging out the disruptions is beginning to reveal the true economic toll of the brutal technique, according to new assessments by the US State Department.
Iran is already a heavily sanctioned and isolated nation, yet the government has repeatedly imposed broad digital restrictions and shutdowns, including notable initiatives in 2017 and 2019. The cumulative impact of these crackdowns has affected the rights of more than 80 million people living in Iran and disrupted every aspect of Iranian society, including trade.
“This is another case, an important one, in which the officials show how they consistently choose their own self-interest over the public interest,” said Reza Ghazinouri, a strategic adviser for the San Francisco-based human rights and civil liberties group. group United for Iran. “In recent years, millions of Iranians have fallen below the poverty line, and further restricting access to platforms like Instagram only adds much more to that number. And it affects women disproportionately. Sixty-four percent of Iranian businesses on Instagram are owned by women.”
From communicating with customers to processing transactions, businesses rely on digital platforms in different ways, but digital disruptions impact businesses of all sizes. Several Iranian trade associations have said in recent weeks that their member companies are reporting heavy losses. And some reports found that the recent outage affected hundreds of thousands of small businesses.
“This censorship underscores the extent to which Iran’s leadership fears what is possible when its people can communicate freely with each other and the outside world,” Rob Malley, US special envoy for Iran, told WIRED in written comments.
The protest movement in Iran has gained momentum since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in the custody of Iran’s “morality police” while being held for allegedly breaking rules on wearing hijab. Since September, more than 18,000 people have been detained by Iranian law enforcement in connection with the protests, and nearly 500 people, including nearly 60 children, have been killed in the protests as officials use increasingly draconian violence against protesters.
Analysis of the recent shutdown by a consortium of digital rights groups, published in late November and cited by the State Department, showed that the Iranian government has deployed an increasingly broad set of technical capabilities to make it more difficult for the population to bypass digital restrictions. For example, the government has expanded its ability to block encrypted connections to defeat users’ attempts to hide their web browsing. Officials also continued to expand their blocks on the Google Play Store, Apple’s App Store and browser extension stores, making it harder for Iranians to download circumvention tools. The findings also indicate that there is a cumulative impact and increasing effectiveness over time as the government stacks censorship, content filtering and blocking with intermittent and large-scale outages.
It is difficult to determine the exact economic impact of the digital blackouts and disentangle it from other factors such as international sanctions. However, based on the increasing Internet shutdown tactics and tolerance for self-inflicted harm, the State Department believes that the Iranian regime feels more threatened by the recent protest movement than previous public waves of opposition.
Earlier this month, in a high-profile concession to protesters, the Iranian government said it had shut down the “morality police” that enforced restrictive laws, particularly a rigid Islamic dress code for women. However, the laws are still in place, and it is unclear how much the move will actually affect enforcement in practice.
A State Department spokesperson said in a statement to WIRED that the White House is “committed to helping the Iranian people exercise their universal right to freedom of expression and to gain free access to information via the Internet.”