Tech is still critical for Iran’s protest movement — and its regime
It has been just over a year since protests erupted across Iran, after the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested by the morality police for allegedly breaching the country’s hijab law and died in police custody a few days later.
Iran has not seen uprisings of this magnitude since the Iranian Revolution of 1979: They have dwarfed the Green Movement protests of 2009, and they extend far beyond calls for an end to the mandatory hijab. Demonstrators — who range from university students to doctors to labor unions — have demanded economic reforms and the codification of women’s rights and called for “death to the dictator.” They have been met with a sharp, brutal response from Iranian authorities. Tens of thousands have been arrested and jailed, and more than 500 people have been killed in clashes with the security forces. Seven men have been executed by hanging for their involvement with the protests. And while large-scale demonstrations have mostly tapered off, acts of resistance continue.
Technology has played a role at many turns in what has happened over the past year. Social media blackouts and internet shutdowns have become a hallmark of the regime’s response to the protests: Research groups like OONI and NetBlocks have documented the blackouts, while tools like VPNs and Starlink have helped people work around them. The Google Play store, where 90% of Iranians would normally download apps, has been blocked since the protests began, to no avail.
And as with every major protest movement of the past decade, social media has been critical to the strategies of both the protesters and the regime they oppose. In Iran, where all major U.S.-based platforms are now blocked, Telegram became the go-to platform for protesters — and for the regime too. Several months ago, I spoke with Mahsa Alimardani about the power that Telegram held in this situation. Alimardani, who is a PhD candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute and a senior researcher at Article19, impressed upon me that the Iranian authorities were “thriving” on Telegram, using the platform to identify and shame protesters and even broadcast forced confessions. Coordinated disinformation campaigns are also a preferred tactic of the authorities. In a recent piece for the Atlantic Council, Alimardani described how the regime now routinely “floods” online spaces with messages and accounts that are designed to leave the opposition “distracted, disunited, and chaotic.”
And technical surveillance has been on the rise too. A few months after the protests began, it came to light that authorities were finding women who appeared with their heads uncovered in photos or videos posted online and using facial recognition tools to identify and pursue them for violating the law. Just yesterday, legislators approved a bill — dubbed the “hijab and chastity law” — that will jack up penalties for hijab law violations, require businesses to enforce the law and “create and strengthen AI systems to identify perpetrators.”
This week, you can find manyreflections across the web on what the movement means, one year on. The biggest takeaway for me is that while the Iranian regime hasn’t fundamentally changed, Iranian society unquestionably has — and, at least for the current generation, this change may be irreversible. As Iranian journalist Golnaz Esfandiari put it on NPR, “I don’t think people can go back to the way they were.”
Will a new censorship regime really make British kids safer? On Tuesday, U.K. parliamentarians passed the hotly-debated Online Safety Bill that will require big social media platforms — and lots of other websites — to perform age checks for all users and somehow remove all content that could be harmful to kids before it appears online. It’s easy to agree that material promoting violence, suicide and disinformation is bad for kids, but screening for this kind of stuff will be the challenge of the century. Outside of China, where censorship really does come first, there are no major platforms that do this. That will have to change if the big players want to stick around in the U.K., and it will probably cause the platforms to censor lots of serious and legitimate stuff.
The law could also leave smaller, alternative sites in a lurch. Wikipedia has said that depending on how the law is enforced, it might have to leave the U.K. altogether. On top of all that, it’s still not clear how the law might affect secure messaging apps. In recent months, both WhatsApp and Signal threatened to pull out of the U.K. should the government force them to screen messages for harmful content. Signal President Meredith Whittaker has already said that this option is still on the table.
Israeli lawmakers may soon be using more surveillance technology in public spaces across the country. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir is promoting a draft law that would allow the police to deploy facial recognition-enabled surveillance cameras in public spaces across Israel to “track the identity and location of suspects in the commission of crimes” and to aid in the “prevention of crimes.” Israeli authorities have used a variety of invasive surveillance tools in their occupation of Palestinian territories for some time. This move would broaden the state’s digital gaze, ensuring that just about everyone living on land controlled by Israel is under some surveillance. The shift gives credence to the notion that when invasive technologies are used to monitor people whose rights are limited or unrecognized in some way — whether they’re Arabs in Israeli-occupied Palestine or Uyghur Muslims in western China — they may soon be deployed and applied to the broader public.
Israel evidently wants to deepen its ties with other parts of the tech industry too. Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Elon Musk and Open AI co-founder Greg Brockman to discuss “AI safety.” This was quite the eyebrow-raiser, when you think about Musk’s predilection for posting and promoting antisemitic messages on X and his recent threat to sue the Anti-Defamation League for its research on hate speech, which tracks racism, homophobia and antisemitic speech online. None of this stopped Netanyahu from taking the meeting — another eyebrow-raiser — though he did bring up the issue and pressure Musk to do more about it. Don’t hold your breath, Bibi.