How WhatsApp and Instagram blocking ‘ruins’ access to information and business for millions of Iranians

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The closure of Instagram and WhatsApp and the drastic reduction in internet speed, underway since September 21 in response to the massive protests that shook Iran, have serious consequences for access to information, but also for the economic activity of millions of Iranians. Three of our Observers explain how these restrictions weigh on their daily lives and how they sometimes manage to get around them.

Ebrahim Raïsi, the Iranian President, who has a verified Instagram account, said on December 7, 2022: “The reason for blocking [d’Instagram et de WhatsApp] is the wickedness and malevolent activities that the enemies in it [font] The promotion”. In other words, the two networks are now blocked, because they were the main relays of images and information regarding the demonstrations that have taken place since September 16 and the death of the young Mahsa Amini, after her arrest by the police in the manners. The two social networks join Facebook, Twitter and Telegram, which have been blocked for years.

According to estimates, more than 50% of adults in Iran are Instagram users and more than 71% WhatsApp users. This gives, respectively, more than 43 million and 61 million users on these networks.

“I get the protest videos a week later”

Mamlekateh (pseudonym) is an Iranian activist. For over ten years, he has published information and images related to current events and protests in Iran. He explains how the new restrictions have made news coverage even more complex.

In addition to general censorship and national blocks, there is now also local or regional censorship. For example, when people demonstrate in Semirom, Izeh or Mahabad, the internet is suddenly cut off in those cities. In the past, geeks in these cities were able to find a way to connect and send me news and photos, but this time even the most skilled can’t get around the block because they literally cut the service, there’s no internet anymore.

“I’ve been wanting to upload a video for days but I can’t, if you know of a good VPN you can name me and I’ll upload the videos.” Message sent to Mamlekateh on January 11th. © mamlekate

I get a lot of messages that start like this: “I recorded it X days ago, but I can only send it now”. Or I have I don’t know how many messages a day that say, “I’ve been trying to send you a video all day, but I couldn’t.”

I am also thinking of the demonstrations in a city in the Kurdish region. I received the videos of the protests a week later, when someone from the city left the area where he found the internet.

And it’s not just videos, simple information about what is happening in these cities is sometimes impossible to find for several days. I once got a message from a stranger who asked me, “People send you things from all over Iran, can you tell me where the internet is better, I’m moving there, my life is ruined, I can’t work without internet .

“For two weeks we lived here in Semirom under curfew. There were soldiers everywhere and we had no internet access…” This message was sent to Mamlekateh from Semirom, a city in southwest Iran, where people are actively participating protests against the regime. © mamlekate

Scams at Starlink

Another consequence is the development of fraudulent schemes, namely related to Starlink, a project by the company SpaceX that aims to provide an Internet connection through a constellation of satellites, which would be available anywhere in the world regardless of local service providers. According to SpaceX executive Elon Musk, only 100 Starlink receivers are active in Iran. Mamlekateh said:

I have seen many cases of “Starlink scams” lately. Some scammers asked people, tired of the almost complete lack of access to the Internet, a large sum of money and promised to sell Starlink receivers. But when the victims transferred the money, the scammers disappeared.

“Our life went back 20 years”

Very satisfied [ce n’est pas son vrai prénom] he is a middle-aged man. He has his own business. He explains that the use of VPNs is no longer enough to bypass restrictions. VPNs are software that allow access to a private, encrypted and secure connection, thus making shared content invisible to authorities.

Ever since they slowed down the internet and blocked the internet, our life has been turned upside down.

I have nine different VPNs on my phone, every day I have to check which one is working today. Sometimes none of them work. Sometimes one of them works with my 4G but not with my wifi or vice versa.

It can take hours every day to be able to connect to Instagram to see what’s happening in the country or what my friends or family have sent me on WhatsApp, or to manage my business for which we depend on WhatsApp.

The first topic of every discussion with friends, family or co-workers now is who found a new VPN and how to download it, because all anti-proxy websites, Google Play or App Apple Store, are blocked.

Many people try to connect to Instagram through VPNs, but due to the reduced speed, many photos and videos do not appear, as these screenshots show.
Many people try to connect to Instagram through VPNs, but due to the reduced speed, many photos and videos do not appear, as these screenshots show. © Observers

“Watching a two-minute video takes 15 minutes”

When that happens we have to find a friend who has a working VPN, they share their internet with us and we download the working VPN to be independent again. But having said that, once we get the connection, it’s another puzzle. Watching a two-minute video takes more than 15 minutes.

I can’t massively watch photos or videos on Instagram or WhatsApp, they don’t load anyway. I don’t even try to watch a video longer than two minutes because it turns out to be impossible.”

“We had to lay off more than 10 people”

The other consequence of Internet restrictions is economic. Many merchants use social media to sell their products, including Instagram and WhatsApp, which have become the backbone of hundreds of thousands of small businesses in Iran. Ravi explains:

“In my business, we used to send or receive invoices via WhatsApp. We also send or receive photos or videos of product samples via WhatsApp. Our life has gone back 20 years, now we have to send or receive them in flash memory, which takes hours. We used to get orders on our Instagram page, all that has turned to dust now. “

We’ve had to lay off over 10 people in our business in the last four months and I think we’re going to have to lay off even more people in the coming months because we don’t have enough orders. People don’t have money to buy and people who have money aren’t in the mood to buy, which is understandable.”

“A savings of 3 billion euros was reduced to ashes in one day”

Irandokht (pseudonym) is an expert on social economy in Iran. She explains how the blocking of WhatsApp and Instagram has left thousands of Iranian families jobless and without income.

“According to various surveys carried out in Iran over the last two years, the turnover of commerce on social networks – mainly Instagram, WhatsApp and Telegram – is between 1.2 and 3.3 billion euros a year. This is huge and, despite than many might assume, most of this market belongs to very small companies, one to two people, that sell their products or services on Instagram and WhatsApp.

Many of them live in cities and small villages in rural areas. People who sold their handicrafts or products from their farms, or even fishermen who sold their fish to people all over Iran, lost their income.

In big cities, cafes, restaurants were marketing online and stores of all kinds were selling their wares, from jewelry to make-up accessories and clothing. There are dozens of start-ups whose activity was based on these social networks, thousands of Iranians who worked indirectly in this market, as writers, photographers or video editors. They lost their jobs. A €3 billion economy was reduced to ashes in one day.”

According to a study conducted in Iran in 2021, more than 1.7 million businesses are on Instagram in Iran, and the income of more than 9 million Iranians depends on their business on this social network. The loss of income and employment caused by Internet shutdowns is worsening the situation in a country that was already in economic crisis.

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