As Iran throttles its internet, activists struggle to get online • TechCrunch
As the protesters flooded The streets of Iran in September after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini – a 22-year-old woman arrested for not wearing her hijab in accordance with the country’s strict dress code for women – videos and images of the protests circulated around the internet Country. Unprecedented acts such as the destruction of images of the Iranian supreme leader or women taking off their hijab have been circulated via smartphone video.
But then the government cracked down on Internet access; and WhatsApp, Signal, Viber, Skype, and Instagram were blocked.
Now groups are mobilizing to scale these growing walls. Recently, a group of activists developed a new approach that involves Tor servers in Iran itself and engages the tech community outside the country.
As this group tries to gain more participation, their approach – using servers within the country as a kind of “Trojan horse for Internet access” – is finding broad support from free speech. About 200 people are currently using servers run by the group of activists who developed the method; This method is now published on Github, and the group hasn’t tracked how many others might be using it as well.
“If Iran has disconnected its private internet access from the rest of the world, but its in-country servers can still access both Iranian private IPs and the external internet, then setting up servers inside the country to route traffic should work” , Bill Budington, Senior Staff Technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told TechCrunch.
Internet shutdowns are certainly no stranger to Iranian netizens. More than 85 million people live in Iran, with around 84% of residents having access to the internet. To suppress dissent, the Iranian regime regularly uses internet blockades and censorship to prevent videos and images of the protests from reaching the population.
When more than 100 protesters were killed in mass riots over fuel prices in 2019, Amnesty International said the country’s internet access was cut off for 12 days.
Details of circumvention tools and technical advice are growing, but the reach of the censorship is wide. Even online video games that allow players to chat have reportedly been shut down.
For over two weeks, Iran’s three main cell phone operators have blocked services for up to eight hours every day starting at 4 p.m. local time, according to Internet monitors. This makes the landline network an important source of information.
Therefore, Iranians have become familiar with finding ways around these blocks.
Traditionally, they would have turned to VPNs to stay connected.
With many VPNs now blocked, Tor networks — which enable anonymous web browsing that can bypass internet blocks — have become particularly important for the dissemination of videos and information about recent anti-regime protests. The Tor Project, the US non-profit organization that maintains the Tor network, has a detailed guide in Farsi and English on how to use Tor to access the internet in Iran.
That’s why internet freedom activists are working every hour to help Iranians get back online and are asking for help outside the country to keep this information channel open to protesters.
The tech community outside of Iran is playing an important role in helping protesters get back online.
Google said in a tweet that its “teams are working to make our tools generally available following the newly updated US communications services sanctions.”
Messaging apps Signal and WhatsApp have been working on proxies to make their services available in Iran.
“We are working to keep our Iranian friends connected and will do everything within our technical capabilities to keep our service running,” Meta’s messaging app tweeted in September.
In another effort, Elon Musk activated his Starlink satellite broadband service in low-Earth orbit in Iran after the US government allowed private companies to offer internet access to the country. This followed the activation of Starlink in Ukraine after the country’s internet was disrupted by the Russian invasion.
However, receiving the signal requires a special terminal containing a 20-inch satellite dish, making it almost impossible to ship the hardware into the lockdown country.
Now human rights and other observers are concerned that the regime is cutting internet connections and making VPN and proxy servers inaccessible, in a chilling repeat of the 2019 protests that killed hundreds during the blackout.
All of this has prompted a group of activists to take the new approach, which also includes Tor but also involves the tech community outside of Iran.
TechCrunch spoke to a tech entrepreneur who represents the group in the country to get an idea of how the group of activists is working to get internet access back up to spread information about the demonstrations. (We do not publish names to protect their safety.)
The entrepreneur said access has become a “game of cat and mouse” with authorities. The Tor project, which uses free and open-source software to enable anonymous communication, has become an important means of circumventing these problems. (In fact, Tor allows users around the world to use Snowflake, an anti-censorship system, to make it easier for users in Iran to access censored websites and applications.)
Use of the Tor anonymity network has picked up steam as VPN blocks have proliferated, but even that has encountered obstacles.
“VPN services provide a free service for Iranians. The Tor project is adding bridges, but few of them will work,” he said of an encrypted messaging app.
The regime is now also “cutting VPN connections very aggressively and you will not stay connected to regular VPNs [with servers outside Iran] longer than a few minutes before disconnecting,” he said.
“The government has blocked access to most non-Iranian IP addresses on private connections (essentially whitelisting them at throttled speeds) and to all non-Iranian IP addresses on 3G/4G mobile data (and most people are connected to the internet via mobile data). All of these services (VPNs/Tor/etc) have servers outside of Iran, which doesn’t make sense,” he told me. “People can’t connect to them.”
The new approach uses servers in Iranian data centers that are “connected to the internet at full speed.” He and a few others are now acquiring servers in Iranian data centers, setting up a VPN server on it and ensuring that all incoming traffic is tunneled to another server outside of Iran.
“Then the Iranian VPN server connection information is shared with the people who can connect to them from any device at any time of the day,” he said. He added that the internet is almost completely shut down at night when protests are most intense, but connections to servers in Iran still work.
But this approach is not scalable. Iranian tech companies cannot buy many servers in Iran’s data centers as this raises too many red flags among regime authorities.
“And we can’t share the connection information publicly because the connection information includes the server IP address, which can easily be used by the government to identify the person who bought it and they can then track us,” he said he.
Instead, Iranian engineers have reached out to members of the Tor Project to help build bridges in Iran.
To achieve this, he and others worked on a document entitled “InternetForIran” published on GitHub.
It details how machines located in Iran’s data centers could be used to connect to websites and servers containing information about the protests in Iran, as the government has not yet blocked internet access to these internal servers and may not do so for fear of cutting off his own access to the outside world.
The document calls on the tech industry outside of Iran, including the Iranian diaspora, for help in purchasing servers.
It’s not clear how successful – or safe – the group’s proposal would be in practice.
“I don’t know how safe it is to do this and what might happen if they get caught,” a source involved with the Tor project told me. Activists in the country could face retaliation if caught by the regime. The ongoing internet outage remains an active discussion on the Tor forums.
An official spokesman for the Tor project did not respond to a request for comment upon publication.
But the EFF’s Budington believes the approach fills a gap if it succeeds in circumventing authorities’ ability to shut down access. Activists appear to be “finding clever ways to route traffic to the Tor network without raising red flags, first routing it through the Iranian server, then to another server outside of Iran, and then to the Tor network,” he said he told TechCrunch.
The tech entrepreneur said the method of bypassing the internet shutdowns is being actively used.
“Most people who connect use this method or similar methods (hopping traffic through an Iranian server). We have about 200 people using our servers, but we can’t be sure how many people are using our methods in total,” he said.
Meanwhile, activists TechCrunch spoke to said the protests were “getting smaller and smaller every night” due to a lack of information and the government was becoming more assertive. Authorities in Tehran recently announced that they will not lift restrictions on WhatsApp and Instagram unless they register businesses in Iran and comply with Iranian laws.
Activists say the methods they are working on to regain access could be crucial in aiding protests against the dictatorial regime. “People in Iran do not see the videos and information about the protests. All they see is government propaganda,” one told me. “We can give them access, but we need help.”