Iran shutters mobile networks, Instagram, WhatsApp amid protests

Officials in Iran appear to be limiting access to mobile networks and communication platforms like Instagram and WhatsApp amid widespread protests over the alleged police killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.

Several internet access watchdogs reported nationwide outages for people using MCI (First Mobile), Iran's leading mobile operator, and Rightel, as well as partial outages for Irancell, on top of a ban on Instagram and WhatsApp.

Amini — who also went by her Kurdish first name Jhina — died last Friday while in the custody of the Islamic Republic’s morality police after being detained for what the authorities described as an improper hijab. Since then, protests have spread throughout much of the country, and seven demonstrators have been killed as of Wednesday, according to human rights organizations.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Communication Ministry in Iran did not respond to requests for comment. Reuters reported on Wednesday that the minister of communication claimed to have been misquoted by local media when he suggested that the government may restrict internet access.

NetBlocks, an organization that tracks internet disruptions around the world, said WhatsApp servers were disrupted Wednesday on multiple internet providers just hours after Instagram was blocked.

WhatsApp and Instagram did not respond to requests for comment but on Thursday, the companies responded to the situation in messages on Twitter.

Alp Toker, director of NetBlocks, told The Record that they have been tracking a rapid escalation of internet restrictions since Friday as unrest grew over the death of Amini. There were internet blackouts in Kurdistan province, beginning on Monday, and some parts of the capital Tehran were also disrupted. 

Toker said there was a near total blackout of connectivity near her hometown in Iran's Kurdistan province where her funeral was held and where protests have centered.

“Perhaps the most striking is the restriction of Instagram today – Iran has already banned other platforms such as Twitter and Facebook for several years, with Instagram being a notable exception and one of the few remaining outlets for expression,” Toker said. 

“That is gone now, with NetBlocks metrics showing Instagram CDN [content delivery network] backends and the website are disrupted across all major network operators, indicative of filtering at Iran's national gateway. This is going to get the public's attention, particularly with a discontented younger generation speaking out.”

While many in Iran have typically gotten around the bans of platforms like Twitter and Facebook through the use of tools like Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), the type of internet disruptions instituted on Wednesday affects connectivity “at the network layer and cannot generally be worked around with the use of circumvention software or VPNs,” NetBlocks said.

As protests over the situation have grown, platforms like Instagram and Twitter have become key rallying points for protesters, with dozens of videos of women burning their hijabs going viral.   

An April report from internet access nonprofit Access Now found that Iran shut down access to the internet at least five times in 2021, the second most of any country they tracked. 

Meanwhile, hackers associated with the Anonymous group claimed on Wednesday morning to be behind attacks on several websites affiliated with the Iranian government, in solidarity with the protesters. 

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Jonathan Greig

Jonathan Greig

is a Breaking News Reporter at Recorded Future News. Jonathan has worked across the globe as a journalist since 2014. Before moving back to New York City, he worked for news outlets in South Africa, Jordan and Cambodia. He previously covered cybersecurity at ZDNet and TechRepublic.