By regularly shutting down the internet, Iran is sabotaging its digital sector

In Tehran (Iran).

His company was one of the first Iranian start-ups in the field of sport. The platform run by Omid, who prefers not to reveal his identity or the name of his site, is a hit: tens of thousands of users have been able to register for sports lessons online. Its site has found its place within the galaxy of web services existing in this country of 85 million inhabitants.

But its activity has plummeted since the start of the demonstrations, of an unprecedented dimension, in reaction on the death of Mahsa Aminiwhich occurred on September 16 after she was arrested by the morality police for an improperly worn veil. “Consultation and our sales on our website have decreased by more than 50%”assesses the 35-year-old entrepreneur, based in Tehran and reached by WhatsApp.

The population has certainly had less head to put on its shorts while its youth is mobilizing everywhere in the country and risks being killed or arrested there. But it should be added that this repression in the street – 508 demonstrators killed according to the non-governmental organization Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA)– is accompanied by significant and frequent difficulties in accessing the internet.

Already during the last major demonstrations, organized at the end of 2019 in response to the rise in the price of gasoline, the authorities had closed all of the Iranian digital tap. The whole country had been plunged into darkness for several days. The world had only later discovered the horror of a reality that we had wanted to hide: 1,500 dead according to Reuters.

The same method is used today. Example in mid-December, when part of Kurdistan, the native province of Mahsa Amini where the protest is stronger, was deprived of connection for at least two days.

Draw on reserves to pay wages

Network cuts, Omid and his team are therefore used to them. But not for such a long time. “We didn’t know what to do, it’s so complicated to manage”he describes. “We couldn’t work properly, so we didn’t do anything for weeks. We suffered.” It was necessary to dip into the company’s reserve fund to continue to pay the wages of the dozen or so people employed. Despite his natural optimism, the entrepreneur seems to be convinced: his business will end up “to flow”.

Like the Omid start-up, the digital sector of the Iranian economy, which has also suffered the effects of the Covid-19 epidemic, is very struggling. Nearly half of internet service providers have, for example, seen their turnover drops by 50% due to disturbances. According to Tehran’s Electronic Commerce Association, internet shutdowns would cost the country $1.5 million (about 1.4 million euros) per hour.

In 2020, 84% of the population was on the internet, compared to only 16% ten years earlier.

Consequently, “The livelihood of around 9 million people who sell their products online is at risk. If the situation continues, the departures of geniuses and start-ups will accelerate, and investments will decrease., warned in October Hossein Salahvarzithe vice-president of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce.

Instagram, flagship application

Over the past decade, a host of apps – one of the most well-known and used is the Iranian equivalent of Uber, Snapp – have massively landed on smartphones. This ferment had been encouraged by the administration of the previous president, Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021). Market players have thus been able to ride the curve of digital democratization: in 2020, 84% of the population was on the internet, against only 16% ten years earlier.

In parallel with the development of these star applications, downloaded millions of times, many smaller players are using Instagram to sell their productions. Of which a majority of women, who hold more than 60% of Iranian companies active on this platform.

With Instagram, they can do business, including in rural areas, via a communication method that does not require special expertise and is easy to use», judge on twitter Jonathan Piron, historian specializing in the country, quoting a data from the Iranian Supreme Council for Cyberspace: the social network represents 7.3% of the digital economy from the country. Selling clothes, knitting or food on Instagram is an alternative way to create employment in difficult environments», adds the specialist. “The damage suffered by women entrepreneurs is significant.»

From Tehran, Mona can testify to that. Two years ago, this 30-year-old launched her page, followed by several hundred users, to showcase her homemade soap production. “My customers only contact me through Instagram because I don’t have a store”explains the leader via Telegram messaging. “Then I have the orders delivered. Unfortunately, with the current situation, the connection speed has made it difficult to access Instagram.

VPN Essentials

Used by nearly 50 million people At the start of 2022, the photo-sharing platform has been the star social network in Iran for years, because it was then one of the few not to be filtered. This is no longer the case today. Days after the uprising began, it and WhatsApp joined the long list of services blocked by ISPs, such as Facebook and Twitter. You now have to use a VPN to access it.

To hope to surf and circumvent censorship, Iranians can thus collect several dozen of these essential private networks, tracked down by the authorities. “Today, when nWe close a VPN, it is immediately replaced by another provided by foreign countries”, lamented the Attorney General of IranMohammad Jafar Montazeri, taking up the usual thesis of the officials about an external influence. “The only solution is to completely shut down the internet, which is neither possible nor desired by the authorities.”

By cutting off the internet, the authorities are sabotaging their own economy, which is evolving in a very tense overall climate.

The situation should not get better though. Tehran recently threatened to block definitively» WhatsApp and Instagram if US parent company Meta fails to meet its demands to open a representative office in the country and adapt its guidelines to those of the Islamic Republic.

Shoot yourself in the foot

In the meantime, the state of the network continues to fluctuate depending on the day, or even the hour of the day. As soon as a demonstration more important than the others is announced, the connection curves start to fall again. The cuts are only made gradually during the evenings and nights. This is a reflection both of the organization of the demonstrations at that time, but also perhaps of the regime’s desire not to put an already fragile economy in even greater difficulty by cutting off access to the web during work hours»notes Jonathan Piron for Slate.

It should be added that the regime and its guardians of the revolution are very interested in this strategic sector in terms of the circulation of information. Thus the majority of the shares of the Snapp application belong to the telephone operator Irancell. But this one, reports Le Mondeis 51% owned by one of the conglomerates run by the Revolutionary Guards, the Mostazafan Foundation.

By cutting off the internet, the authorities are sabotaging their own economy, which is evolving in a very tense overall climate. Under pressure due to the collapse of the value of the Iranian currency, coupled with galloping inflation – around 50% – the boss of the central bank recently resigned.

This context inspires in Omid a feeling mixed with sadness, anger and exhaustion». To avoid seeing his start-up sink, he already has a way out: Paris, where he and his colleagues hope to obtain an economic visa. In five years, the entrepreneur imagines succeed in this industry, worldwide».

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By regularly shutting down the internet, Iran is sabotaging its digital sector

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