Legal guidance has been changed by the US government on expanding internet services to Iranians despite US sanctions on the country.
The US government has given SpaceX CEO Elon Musk the green light to activate its Starlink satellite internet service to help Iranians protesting the death of a woman in police custody.
Access to social media and some content was severely restricted in Iran, and a major internet outage was reported across the country on Saturday, with one of the largest mobile operators disrupting, leaving millions of Iranians offline.
The US Treasury on Friday issued directives to expand internet services available to Iranians despite US sanctions on the country.
The move follows bloody protests across Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died after being detained by “moral police” who questioned her manner of wearing the hijab.
Hundreds of angry protesters were arrested as crowds took to the streets of major cities across Iran for eight consecutive nights. State television said the death toll in the “recent riots” had risen to 35 compared to 17 previously, including at least five security personnel.
We have taken action today to promote internet freedom and the free flow of information for the Iranian people, and have issued a public license to provide them with greater access to digital communications to counter Iranian government censorship.
Secretary Anthony Blinken (@SecBlinken) September 23, 2022
A US State Department spokesperson said the updated license was self-enforcing and “anyone who meets the criteria described in this general license can proceed with their activities without requesting additional permissions.”
Musk could not be reached for comment or clarification on Starlink’s authorization to operate in Iran.
However, on Monday, he said the company wants to offer Starlink satellite broadband service – which has already been provided to Ukraine in its war against Russia’s invasion – to the Iranians and will ask for an exemption from the sanctions.
Iran has restricted access to social media networks Instagram and WhatsApp amid the protests, according to residents and internet monitor NetBlocks.
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 suppressing access.
Akbari added that with the global cyberspace shutdown in Iran, it will be increasingly “difficult and dangerous” for members of the public to access secure messaging apps and use methods to get around the blocking.
Speaking from Cape Town, South Africa, mobile video journalism publisher Yusuf Omar said the Iranian government’s attempts to restrict internet access are a form of “government censorship” as well as “self-censorship” of the population.
“The people we communicate with about stories even if they have access to the internet for a few hours and want to send a video. They are really scared,” Omar told Al Jazeera.
Iranian state media reported that President Ebrahim Raisi said on Saturday that Iran must “deal firmly with those who oppose the country’s security and safety.”
Raisi’s remarks came in a phone call of condolence to the family of a security officer who was stabbed to death last week, by angry protesters allegedly over Amini’s death.
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