A protester at a rally in Iran

Cellular network shut down in parts of Iran, digital rights group claims

Image credit: Getty Images

Internet connectivity in the Islamic Republic is being selectively severed amid street protests, an organisation fighting web shutdowns has said.

People in some parts of Iran have reported being unable to access the internet, send text messages or even make and receive phone calls, according to digital rights campaign organisation Access Now.

The group has been collecting first-hand testimonies from people living inside the theocratic state, amid widespread street protests over the past few days.

Partial and even total outages of the cellular network have allegedly been experienced in some regions of the country.

Access Now’s advocacy director Melody Patry told E&T“They don’t necessarily shut down the entire network – although in some cities people have reported that the entire cellular network has been shut down.

“What they can do sometimes is just throttle connections and protocols, making it very slow for people to access a web site. At some point a protocol just fails and you can no longer access the internet or use an app. They’ve used different types of shutdowns.”

The Iranian regime’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace controls much of the country’s internet infrastructure and is adept at influencing the activities of private service providers that help link Iranians up with the World Wide Web.

The regime’s routine censorship of the internet has led tech-savvy Iranians to use virtual private networks and the encrypted Tor browser in a bid to circumvent controls, although even access to these services has been hampered in recent days.

Twitter and Facebook have long been officially banned in Iran and access to Instagram is currently blocked nationwide. However, the Iranian government has taken a comparatively laissez-faire approach to the messaging app Telegram, which has seen its popularity soar in the country, with around 40 million people regularly using it.

Pavel Durov, Telegram’s founder and chief executive, was recently sharply criticised by free speech activists for agreeing to suspend Amad News - an Iranian public news channel - apparently at the request of the regime. Durov said subscribers to the channel had started calling for people to take up arms against the police, thereby violating Telegram’s rules banning users from advocating violence.

Critics, including the whistleblower Edward Snowden, accuse Telegram of being insufficiently transparent about the precise nature of the case against Amad News. Some technology experts have also questioned whether Telegram’s encryption - used by Iranians to send supposedly secret messages - is robust enough to withstand state surveillance.

Information security expert Lee Munson, from consumer tech review company Comparitech, said: “There’s no such thing as uncrackable encryption. It’s a matter of time and computing power.”

Over the weekend, the Iranian authorities moved to temporarily block access to Telegram, warning that the ban could become permanent if the firm failed to suspend “terrorist channels”. Iran has developed an increasingly sophisticated ‘filternet’ and the country’s government has previously spoken about a project to forge its own, nationally specific “halal” version of the web.

Josh Mayfield, a cybersecurity professional who works for firewall vendor FireMon, told E&T it was relatively easy for the Iranian government to shut down messaging apps and social networks when protests swirled and to censor the web as a matter of course.

“It’s like if I want to get on a plane and fly to New York, I have to go through security clearance to get on that aircraft,” he said. The government is controlling my access. It’s the same principle here, just they [the Iranian government] are using data packets and deep packet inspection - and whitelisting and blacklisting - to accomplish it.

In a regime like Iran, it’s not out of the norm for them to lock it down. They lock down a lot of other things, too.

“What some users will do in response is to set up their own proxy [server]. That way, the proxy will communicate outward into another system. But what if the government controls all the proxies, too? When the state runs the entire infrastructure, there is no alternative for you to circumvent their protected measures.

From a technical point, it’s relatively simple when you own an infrastructure to then turn on and off certain controls that prevent things.

Irans president Hassan Rouhani has said people are free to protest and express criticisms of the government in Iran, but he has also accused foreign governments of trying to stir up trouble in the country. 

Addressing his cabinet four days ago, Rouhani said: “If the way chosen to express criticism causes doubt and concern in people for their lives, business, travel and investment, and makes our enemies happy, then it is certainly a wrong way.”

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