By Mike Knight

Following a move by the Iranian government to restrict access to Meta’s WhatsApp, the company has said in a tweet that it “will do anything” within its technical ability to keep its service up and running for Iranian users.

What Happened?

After protests which followed the death of a woman, 22-year old Mahsa Amini, in police custody in Tehran, residents and internet watchdog NetBlocks reported that Iran had curbed access to two of the last remaining social networks in the country, Meta’s Instagram and WhatsApp.

Nation-Scale Loss of Connectivity

NetBlocks , the watchdog organisation, founded in 2017, that monitors cybersecurity and the governance of the internet reported that following the protests there had been a “nation-scale loss of connectivity” on Iran’s main mobile telephone provider and another company’s network. Reports also indicate that: 

  • WhatsApp’s servers have been disrupted on multiple internet providers.
  • Instagram’s services were blocked.
  • Internet services were disrupted in Tehran (texts could be sent but not pictures), and more severely disrupted in parts of Kurdistan province in west Iran. 

WhatsApp Says…

WhatsApp tweeted about the disruption to its service saying: “We exist to connect the world privately. We stand with the rights of people to access private messaging. We are not blocking Iranian numbers. We are working to keep our Iranian friends connected and will do anything within our technical capacity to keep our service up and running.” 

Iran Says…

There were conflicting messages between Iran’s minister of communications Issa Zarepour, who was first quoted as saying that restrictions to the internet could be applied “for security reasons.” This, however, was corrected by Iran’ ISNA news agency which used a different quote with no mention of security to say that there had been some temporary restrictions in some places, which had been resolved. 

Happened Before

As shown on the NetBlocks website, it is often the case that in many countries, where there are anti-government protest or conflict, internet services and access to communications apps are restricted. For example, TikTok is reported to be restricted in Azerbaijan and Armenia on multiple internet providers amid clashes between the two countries over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, and YouTube was recently disrupted on multiple internet providers in Pakistan as former Prime Minister Imran Khan attempted to make a live broadcast to the public (despite a ban). 

WhatsApp is banned / blocked in many countries around the world including Dubai and The UAE, China, North Korea, Qatar, Turkey, and Syria. 

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

In the UK and other democracies, citizens are used to certain freedoms, especially where the Internet and communications apps are concerned and any attempt to restrict open communication is met with scrutiny by rights organisations and media outlets, e.g. Amber Rudd’s push to get backdoor access to WhatsApp following the London terrorist attacks in 2017.

In many other countries, however, restricting Internet access (thereby restricting access to information which could be used against governments) is seen as a legitimate response by certain governments and regimes. In addition to effects on the freedom of citizens, disruptions to Internet services affect all users, including businesses.

Reports from Russia (which has tested its own complete switch-off from the wider Internet), a huge country which is dependent on online services, indicate that since its invasion of Ukraine, .ru domains have only been online intermittently, and Russians have discovered that it is now difficult to pay for private networking apps since Visa and Mastercard have pulled out.

The Internet and the Web have transformed the sharing of information, global trade, and business, but inequalities exist around the world in terms of how comfortable governments are with the free flow of information, and how prepared they are to stifle that flow. 

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