On 15 November 2022, I did a public presentation for the Human Rights Huddle: Protest, Censorship, and Repression in Iran, sponsored by the Physicians for Human Rights. Below is a transcript of the presentation, which builds off the 8 October 2022 public panel:
Hello everyone. My name is Mindy Cohoon, and I am a PhD candidate in the Near and Middle Eastern Studies program at the UW. It is a tremendous opportunity to be here and speak with you on the issues that Iranians are currently experiencing. The kind of research that I do is called ethnography: the study of a particular social or cultural group to better understand it. Through doing ethnographic research, I am able to focus on Iranian culture and emotion with particular emphasis on Iranian and Iranian diaspora gamers, games, and gaming online. This has taken the form of playing, observing, and collecting data on these various aspects of gaming culture and social media. With that being said, I am able to be with you here today to talk about the past and current experiences of Iranians with their government, the challenges they face, and their resilience during the protests.
I will now share with you two short quotes from my most recent field research.
“Iranian women have been battling for their rights since 1979. This has never ceased. Yet if anything, the younger generation are stronger, more ferocious and determined to gain their rights back. Stop a generation of women from running, and they give birth to girls with wings.” #mahsaamini, #iranprotests September 30, 2022
#محسن_طهماسبی Mohsen Tahmasbi
#حسین_درواری Hossein Darvari
#آرین_اقبال Arian Eghbal
Anyone against the “Bill for Protection of Cyberspace Users” has been arrested in Iran.” October 5, 2022
Today I will talk to you broadly about the relationship between internet censorship in Iran, and then elucidate the concerns of the Iranian people. By looking at the issues that Iranians have and continue to experience over the last decade or so, I will then be able to provide nuance about the last 50 cataclysmic days of which many call a continued Iranian revolution.
As some of you may know, internet censorship and information controls has been part of the current oppressive tactics used by the Iranian government against citizens since the advent of the internet. To accomplish this task, the government’s suppressive methods consist of violence, imprisonment, restricting or banning access to platforms and content also known as internet filternet, slowing internet speeds deliberately also known as throttling, and internet shutdowns. In Iran, citizens are experiencing these strategies as they protest against the killing of Jina Mahsa Amini by the Morality Police, a 22 year old Kurdish woman who was merely visiting her brother in Tehran. It is therefore without a doubt that the imperative of the Iranian government is to cut off Iranians from the outside world through internet slowing and shutdown. Lack of internet access not only hinders Iranians ability to do everyday activities, and for some, even conducting online business, but is an insidious tactic to curtail opposition to the state.
Internet censorship has been a cat-and-mouse game implemented by the Iranian authorities since the early 2000s. For instance, Facebook’s popularity was unparalleled in the early 2000s but was ultimately filtered in 2009 to curb support of protestors against the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Thereafter, Twitter would be blocked due to fear of protestors organizing. Despite these bans, Iranians have been able to circumnavigate these challenges by using what are called virtual private networks or VPNs. VPNs afford users the freedom to access the internet through disguising their online identities, cloaking an individual’s location while online. With a VPN, users are then able to network, essentially disrupting lack of access to create a lifeline to the world wide internet. In other words, it is through VPNs that people can connect to those in the outside world, which makes methods like messaging or tweeting through social media possible. However, the government is motivated to control the internet through financial gain, and facilitating surveillance and censorship practices, as seen in the last several months.
In February 2022, however, lawmakers sought to pass the “Bill for Protection of Cyberspace Users,” to give Iranian government authorities access to private information of Iranian citizens and extend bans over more online platforms in addition to criminalizing VPNs. Instead, the Iranian government aimed to dole out its own government sanctioned VPNs. The bill was silently implemented in early September 2022, falling under the control of the National Information Network. A multibillion-dollar project, the National Information Network has notoriously worked with several state agencies in Iran, such as the Basij militia and Iranain Cyber Police, to monitor citizens, implement violence, and conduct global cyberattacks. The government’s policy has been in part to prevent the flow of incoming ideas from the West, and to control media through propaganda in Iran. To do so, the government’s infrastructure will seek to segregate access to the global internet, allowing and forbidding user access based on occupation, age, and other factors ultimately with government backed VPNs. Government-backed VPNs will benefit the Islamic Republic because it will cost the user money, which will ultimately afford the government additional surveillance opportunities. If this legal VPN framework is to materialize, the government online in concert with the militias and the morality police, will then continue to reject democracy, and specifically information from getting in and out of Iran.
As we have seen since the beginning of the protests, access to the internet was and has only been further exacerbated by the Iranian government. Indeed, while protests and internet censorship are not new to Iran, the message embodies the current moment: the right for women to choose, and to live freely. As a response to the protests in late September, the government shut down the internet across 80 cities, blocked messaging on XBOX as well as the voice and text messaging platform Discord, and Microsoft products to curtail protests and social engagement, leading to incarceration and torture of citizens, especially women. And while internet shutdowns and slowing still remains a method of Iranian authorities, citizens have thus experienced large scale attacks in the streets of Iran and online, consisting of large scale attacks on the use of virtual private networks of citizens to block every foreign platform.
With millions of hashtags chanting mahsaamini on Twitter, the campaigns for or against the government are palpable suggesting the necessity for further fact checking against state disinformation campaigns. State actors have sought to mitigate the efforts on the ground by producing disinformation such as fake links to Starlink internet, which could be used maliciously against internet users in Iran to imprison them. Tech activists in the field have also noted that the Iranian government is using especially sophisticated technologies to target VPNs, consequently impacting the health of the internet network and slowing down internet speeds. What we are also seeing is the prevention of using tools like Tor Snowflake which are used to navigate the bandwidth issues and to visit blocked sites like Twitter. Over the last few days, problems include uploading large files like videos. The speed of the upload drops to extremely slow levels: when connecting to say a server in Germany, the speed is 3 mb/sec. Whereas the Iranian server is .21 mb/s, which are statistics collected from Speedtest by ZoomIT. Meanwhile, the internet program called “Siam,” which contains 40 different features, seeks to remotely manipulate telephone communications, which can crack encryption of phone calls, grant complete access to people’s activities on their phone, and slow down the data speed. This issue of current internet instability on cell phones is a root cause of the Iranian government’s attempts to control digital media from leaving the country. Despite these attempts, Iranians continue to show the world what is happening in Iran through their citizen journalism.
At the same time, the governmental ban on accessing certain platforms has gone hand in hand with US sanctions. Arguably, U.S. tech sanctions have played into the Islamic Republic of Iran’s goal to block access to Google Cloud Platforms. Many citizens in Iran have experienced connection issues with Google, despite having a VPN. In response to the early onset of issues in September, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced certain web services in Iran are to be exempt from economic sanctions with regards to modern day technology, i.e., online video games, internet, anti-virus software etc., while imposing sanctions against Iran’s Morality Police, senior security services officials, and petroleum sales. In the meantime, Iranian leaders will likely continue a combination of mass arrests, surveillance, internet shutdowns, and violence to quell protests, if and/or when sanctions continue to be lifted. (September 22,29, October 6, 26 2022 https://www.state.gov/iran-sanctions/)
As of now, the uplifting of tech sanctions may not democratize Iran but it may help facilitate current goals for the protestors. Particularly, some of Western media has propagated and framed the current revolution in terms of economic sanctions that continue to be imposed on Iran as a main issue or reason for Iranians protesting. It is important to recognize what is going on on the ground for Iranians through censorship and even more importantly their demands. As once again, Iranians are not clamoring for the uplifting of sanctions in either slogans nor their current demands. While it is important to understand that internet shutdowns and slowdowns attempt to curtail the efforts of protests as internet access in of itself is an integral part of human rights.
So what is happening? What are the people’s goals? Women and men are chanting Zen Zendegi Azadi in the streets, meaning woman, life, freedom. Iranians see this revolution as a continuation of the last 43 years or so since the founding of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. In nearly each decade thereafter the Iranian people have experienced unnecessary censorship either through the newspaper press and/or the internet, as well as extreme violence, torture, and death from the Islamic Republic,
- In 1988, Iranian political prisoners were executed as an order of Ayatollah Khomeini. (Peoples mojahedin org. Of iran political militant org that advocated from the overthrow IRI and interpreted Islam differently founded as opposition to Mohammad Reza Pahlavi AND other leftist groups; fedaian and Tudeh)
- Then in 1999, students at the Tehran University protested the government censoring the newspaper Salam for being reformist. And while students were peacefully demonstrating over the course of 6 days, the government ordered the Basij paramilitary group to attack students despite them peacefully protesting: 1.2 k to 1.4 k were detained, and 70 students were disappeared.
- Ten years later in 2009, when the incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmad-din-a-jad stole the elections fraudulently, demonstrations among citizens were even more pronounced than in 1999, chanting “down with the dictator” and “give us our votes back.” In response, the government shutdown the Internet shutdowns, arrested 170 people.
- In 2019, what is called bloody november, Iranians protested the rise in fuel prices through peaceful gatherings and were met with violent suppression with nearly 1500 killed. During this time, the government meted out a weeklong internet blackout.
- And today’s protests as we have discovered yielded some of the largest mass incarceration of peaceful protestors with as many or more than 15k people.
The desires of the people of Iran are clear. They do not want reform, unlike Western governments continue to purport. Iranians are crying for regime change. The people see their own government, military, militias, the morality police, etc. as terrorizing and oppressing them. There is no room for reform. The people’s demands go beyond the right of women to not wear or wear the hijab when they so please. Indeed, the people are demanding free and fair trials, the end to this 43 year dictatorship, and the expression of their basic human rights. To support them, we must continue to repost, reshare their messages across social media, come to talks like these, and protest on their behalf.
The contours of the situation have yet to be fully drawn as the future has yet to be written. We are most certainly observing an existential threat to the regime, and we are also bearing witness to a renewal of hope and continuation of young adult’s disenchantment with the government that goes beyond social stratification and differences, which encapsulates generation Z. We would therefore be remiss to not regard the youth’s sentiments, and ask those in positions of power to hold the perpetrators of crimes against humanity accountable.
I will now begin with some concluding remarks that include a famous piece of Iranian poetry by Hamid Mossadegh that I believe captures the current moment in Iran, and provide some nuance:
Man aghar barhizam
To aghar barhizi
Hami bar mi hizand
Man aghar benshenam
To aghar benshinee
Che kesee barkhizad
If I stand up
And you stand up
All will stand up
If I sit down
And you sit down
Who will stand up?
So what does this poem mean in the current context? You and I are the ones here while Iranians are there fighting the good fight. We must continue to uplift and raise our voices against Iranian government’s crimes against international law and crimes against humanity. In doing so, we are representing a shared humanity and desire for human rights.
Thank you all for coming to listen to me and my co-panelists.