Public Presentation at University of Washington-Bothell for the “Iran: Gender & Rights After State Violence” Panel

On 8 October 2022, I presented for the panel “Iran: Gender & Rights After State Violence” sponsored by the department of Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures and the Middle East Center. Below is my presentation transcript:

Thank you for your introduction Aria.

I will begin with two short quotes from my field research on social media.

“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





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 and social media in Iran over the last decade or so up to the current cataclysmic moment. 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. 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 Mahsa Amini by the Morality Police. 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. 

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. 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. The infrastructure for internet control and the morality police seek to continue this rejection of the West, as witnessed with today’s events.

As we have seen in the recent protests, access to the internet has only been further exacerbated by the Iranian government. 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, 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. Citizens have thus experienced large scale attacks in the streets of Iran and online, which has consisted of large scale attacks on the use of virtual private networks of citizens to blockock every foreign platform.

With millions of hashtags chanting Mahsa Amini 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 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 ongoing issues, 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.

As of now, the uplifting of tech sanctions may not democratize Iran but rather help facilitate current goals in the movement as we speak. Giving legal permission to access platforms is thus only a small part of the solution. At the same time, the contours of the situation have yet to be fully drawn. While we are observing an existential threat to the regime, 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.

زن زندگی آزادی

Thank you all for coming out today to listen to me and my co-panelists.