The US government’s legal guidelines on extending internet services to Iranians were changed despite US sanctions against the country.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has been given the green light by the US government to activate Starlink satellite internet service to help Iranians protest the death of a woman in police custody.
Access to social media and some content is severely restricted in Iran and significant internet outages were reported across the country on Saturday, disrupting one of the largest mobile phone operators, leaving millions of Iranians offline.
The US Treasury Department issued guidelines Friday for expanding internet services available to Iranians, despite US sanctions against the country.
The action follows deadly protests in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died after being detained by ‘morality police’ who questioned the way she wore her headscarf.
Hundreds of angry protesters have been arrested as crowds took to the streets of major cities across Iran for eight nights in a row. State television said the death toll in “recent riots” had risen to 35 from 17 earlier, including at least five security personnel.
We took action today to promote internet freedom and the free flow of information for the Iranian people by issuing a general license to give them greater access to digital communications to counter the Iranian government’s censorship.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) September 23, 2022
A spokesperson for the United States Department of State said the updated license is self-executing and that “anyone who meets the criteria set forth in this general license may continue to operate without requesting additional permissions.”
Musk could not be reached for comment or clarification regarding Starlink’s permission to operate in Iran.
However, on Monday he said the company wanted to provide the Starlink satellite broadband service — which has already been delivered to Ukraine for its fight against the Russian invasion — to Iranians and would ask for an exception to the sanctions.
According to residents and internet watchdog NetBlocks, Iran has restricted access to social media networks Instagram and WhatsApp during the protests.
Azadeh Akbari, of the University of Twente, said the digital shutdown in Iran is “a continuation of decades of internet filtering by the Iranian government”.
She gave examples of “keyboard filtering” and the arrest of journalists as a means of cracking access.
Akbari added that with the global cyberspace shutdown in Iran, it would become increasingly “difficult and dangerous” for members of the public to access secure messenger apps and use methods to bypass the blocks.
Mobile video journalism publisher Yusuf Omar said from Cape Town, South Africa, that the Iranian government’s attempts to restrict internet access are a form of “government censorship” and “self-censorship” by the population.
“People we come into contact with, even if they have access to the internet for a few hours and want to send a video. They’re really scared,” Omar told Al Jazeera.
President Ebrahim Raisi said on Saturday that Iran “must act decisively against those who oppose the security and tranquility of the country,” Iranian state media reported.
Raisi’s comments were made in a condolence call to the family of a security guard who was stabbed to death last week, allegedly by protesters outraged by Amini’s death.