Iran shuts down internet access across the country as protests escalate over gas hikes

Iris Deng

The Iranian government has shut down nearly all internet access in the country over the weekend amid increasingly angry protests over gas price hikes, following a string of governments using internet control as a way to contain conflicts.

Tehran switched off the internet over the weekend, blocking Iranians from sharing information with the outside world, after a 50 per cent hike in gas prices took effect on Friday and ignited protests across the country, Associated Press reported.

Iran has entered “a near-total national internet shutdown” with only 5 per cent of its ordinary level of connectivity on Tuesday morning, according to NetBlocks.org, an organisation that monitors disruptions and shutdowns of internet globally.

The slowdown started on Friday and the country’s largest mobile data service operators – including MCI, Rightel and IranCell – had also fallen offline as of Saturday, NetBlocks said in a report.

The ongoing disruption is “the most severe disconnection tracked by NetBlocks in any country in terms of its technical complexity and breadth”, the organisation said.

Iran’s information and communications technology minister, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, reportedly told state-run Islamic Republic News Agency that officials hope the situation will normalise and allow the internet to be restored. However, the former Intelligence Ministry member also told IRNA that “maintaining national security is very important”, according to the AP.

Government-led internet shutdowns are not unprecedented as a way to contain conflicts by restricting communication between protesters.

India has imposed 357 internet shutdowns in total, with 85 this year alone in different parts of the country, according to data from the Software Freedom Law Centre in India.

These took place mostly in Jammu and Kashmir, a disputed region between India and Pakistan, with the longest mobile internet shutdown lasting 133 days in Kashmir in 2016 amid protests following the killing of popular militant Burhan Wani.

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Pakistan also cut off internet access in September and in some regions over the disputes with India, according to NetBlocks.

Other countries have formally legislated internet controls – Russia passed a “sovereign internet” law that took effect on November 1, allowing the country’s government to block internet traffic from outside Russia in an emergency and requiring service operators to filter and re-route traffic.

This has been compared to China’s so-called Great Firewall, which slows down cross-border internet traffic and blocks access to selected foreign websites including Google and Facebook.

In Hong Kong, which is embroiled in months of anti-government protests, fears of an internet shutdown emerged after the government invoked the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to impose a mask ban in October at public assemblies.

Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam said last month that there were no immediate plans to expand its emergency powers beyond the mask ban, which was ruled unconstitutional by the city’s High Court this week.

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