Iran’s Internet Censorship Harmed Hundreds of Thousands of Businesses

A study of internet freedom in 65 countries found 30 governments are deploying some form of manipulation to distort online information, up from 23 the previous year
AFP/Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV

The Iranian Association for Online Commerce stated on Monday that Internet controls installed by the authoritarian regime to suppress a popular uprising damaged “half a million online businesses, including several high-tech companies.”

AOC Deputy President Solmaz Sadeghnia said many of these businesses were small, some of them owned by single mothers, and were “destroyed overnight.”

The Association explained that Iranians rely heavily upon the social media services shut down by their government for advertising and e-commerce, notably including the secure messaging application Telegram, which is enormously popular in Iran. The government shut down Telegram last week and has not yet restored it.

“We weren’t able to communicate to our users and we lost payments,” tech entrepreneur Milad Nouri told the L.A. Times. It took him three days to devise a workaround for his mobile app design firm.

Another problem described by the Times was a popular Uber-style service called Snapp that had difficulty functioning because its drivers could no longer access Google for map data. Small businesses ranging from shoe stores to food service found themselves unable to process orders.

Internet security researcher Amir Rashidi of the Center for Human Rights in Iran described a cat-and-mouse game between Iranian Internet users and their government. As the growing Iranian online community grew more adept at evading censorship, the government developed more powerful and disruptive techniques.

“Almost all of the circumvention tools are blocked and the Iranian government is doing whatever they can do to block it. It wasn’t this bad in 2009. I’m not able to talk to my family on some days over the internet,” Rashidi said.

The cat-and-mouse game continues, as Motherboard reports a 1,650-percent increase in downloads of a Canadian app called Psiphon that helps Iranians penetrate government filters and website blacklists. Psiphon reported a five-fold increase in traffic on its servers and a tenfold increase in mobile usage since New Year’s Eve, most of it coming from Iran.

A massive surge of Iranians turning to the “dark web” and its favorite browser Tor has also been detected.

Radio Farda notes that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani acknowledged on Monday that over 100,000 businesses were negatively impacted by the Internet blockage, while Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari offered a public apology to those affected.

Rouhani is attempting to draw a line between himself and his “hardline” rivals in the theocracy by saying he would not approve a permanent shutdown of Telegram or other long-term censorship measures the hardliners desire. Motherboard reports the hardliners have proposed creating their own social media app that would be easier to control than Telegram, which would be the exact opposite of why Iranians love Telegram.

On the other hand, disappointment with Rouhani’s economic policies was an important factor driving the protests, and the last thing Iran’s poor economy needed was major disruption to hundreds of thousands of businesses.

Tehran purchased a good deal of its censorship infrastructure from the masters of online oppression in China, who were ultimately slapped with a billion-dollar fine by the United States for violating sanctions on Iran. This makes calls for U.S. tech companies to engage more with the Iranian market to promote free speech somewhat problematic, since those hopeful efforts would run afoul of the same firewall technology that has proven so effective at thwarting liberalization in China. An alternative suggestion is for the U.S. government to help Iranian citizens obtain more tools like Psiphon to neutralize their government’s censorship efforts.

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