Iran Shuts Down Internet Amid Violent Protests Over Gas-Price Hikes

"It's like being in the dark," says an angry Iranian businessman in the capital, Tehran. "Now we know what the North Koreans have to deal with."

The entrepreneur, who gave his name as Reza, was referring to the Iranian government turning off the Internet on November 16 and depriving some 57 million people -- about 69 percent of the population -- from going online for the last three days.

The move came amid violent protests over a hike in the price of gasoline that spread to more than 100 towns and cities across the country, leaving at least six people dead. Some reports based on human rights organizations and social-media videos suggested dozens of people had been killed. More than 1,000 have been detained.

The protests turned quickly from economic to sharply political, with many of the protesters chanting slogans against Iran's Islamic establishment and its leaders.

The near-total shutdown of the Internet, ordered by the country's Supreme National Security Council, appeared to be aimed at controlling information, silencing protesters, and preventing people from communicating and organizing.

But many citizen journalists have documented the protests on their cellphones since the announcement overnight on November 15 that gas would be rationed and its price increased by at least 33 percent and, in some cases, by as much as 300 percent.

Many of the videos seen on social media show what appears to be a strong response by security forces against protesters.

NetBlocks, a group that monitors worldwide Internet access, said that by the night of November 16, connectivity had fallen to just 7 percent of normal levels.

"The ongoing disruption is the most severe recorded in Iran since President [Hassan Rohani] came to power, and the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth," the group said on November 16.

Internet company Oracle described the blackout as "the largest internet shutdown ever observed in Iran."

Amir Rashidi, an Internet security researcher with the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran, tells RFE/RL that the extent and intensity of the shutdown is unprecedented.

"During the protests [over the economy in December 2017 and early 2018], [authorities] did it gradually, they slowed the Internet, they increased the filtering, they blocked anti-filtering tools, and then finally they shut down the Internet for half an hour," he says. "But this time it was much more violent."

Cutting Off The Outside World

Many governments around the world use an Internet shutdown as a tool of repression and censorship during critical moments, such as mass protests.

Access Now, which promotes digital security and human rights, has documented 196 cases of Internet shutdowns in 25 countries in 2018.

In October, Iraq imposed a near-total Internet shutdown amid mass anti-government protests over poor public services, corruption, and unemployment.

Mahsa Alimardani, a digital-rights researcher with the human rights organization ARTICLE19, says that "suspect" incidents in Iran's Internet connectivity in the past year had worried activists that the Islamic republic was practicing how to disconnect the country from the Internet.

"Last June for example, the entire nation experienced several hours of nationwide disruptions that the government blamed on a glitch caused by international cables," she says.

Analysts say Iranian authorities were preparing for such a moment for nearly a decade by building the country's national intranet, which works independently from the world's Internet.

"Without a doubt this is the most significant deployment of Iran's 'National Information Network' (also known as SHOMA) that we've seen to date," says Kaveh Azarhoosh, a senior researcher at Small Media who focuses on digital rights and Internet policy developments in Iran.

"While Iran's ultimate aspiration has been to limit access to the global Internet while maintaining the functionality of key national financial, eGovernment, and information platforms, there are suggestions that some key local services have also been negatively impacted by the shutdown," he adds, suggesting the shutdown could take a heavy toll on the Iranian economy.

Reza, the Tehran businessman, says he has been unable to access social-media applications such as the popular Instagram and Whatsapp, which he had been using to remain in touch with family and friends following the start of the protests.

"Only Iranian applications are available, such as [the Iranian cab-sharing app] Snapp," he says.

Reza adds that when he tried to get online via his mobile phone, a recorded message said that due to a decision by the National Security Council, access to the Internet had been "limited."

The Internet disruptions remained severe on November 18, tech experts said, and they continued into November 19.

But some users managed to get online briefly, including journalist Amir Tousheh, who criticized the shutdown. "I just wanted to say that being deprived of the free flow of information is a human rights violation. It's like we've been all imprisoned," Tousheh said on Twitter, adding that people's lives had been severely disrupted as a result.

Cut Off Khamenei?

The near-total Internet shutdown led to increased calls for social-media networks, including Twitter, to block accounts used by Iranian officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

On November 17, while the majority of Internet users in Iran were forced offline, Khamenei's media team posted his comments about the protests on Twitter, where he called those who attack public properties "thugs."

"I invite all activists to call on @Twitter to ban [the] supreme leader of [the] Islamic Republic @khamenei_ir until Internet access is restored [in Iran]," New York-based activist Masih Alinejad, who campaigns against the compulsory hijab, wrote on Twitter on November 17.

Others, including Alimardani, have blasted Khamenei's "hypocrisy" while suggesting that shutting down the Twitter account of the country's supreme ruler is not likely to help Iranians. "I don't think blocking [Khamenei] is going to improve the situation for Iranians, besides some momentary catharsis of giving the dictators a taste of their own medicine," says Alimardani, a PhD student at Oxford University.

"If we weren't getting his ludicrous statements painting the protests as fraudulent on his Twitter account, we would be getting that clip of his speech on Telegram, or through ISNA, or other Iranian media," she says. "I don't see the point unless you want to censor all his statements and speeches from reaching audiences outside of Iran."

Meanwhile, Azarhoosh suggests that Iran is likely to resort to an Internet shutdown again in the future. "While shutdowns do have heavy costs, we fully expect to see more disruption to Iran's connection to the global Internet in the coming years."