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Iran tries to crack down on protests, even online. Here's how activists are evading those efforts


Protests in Iran over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini have reached their fourth week. Mahsa, also known by her Kurdish name, Jina, died in police custody after being arrested for violating Iran's strict Islamic dress code. Dozens are estimated to have been killed so far in the fierce government crackdown. And that crackdown is being felt online, too. To try to make it harder for people on the ground to organize, authorities have rolled out high-tech tools to limit mobile phone connections, to block social media sites and cut demonstrators off from the rest of the world.

Dina Temple-Raston is the host of "Click Here," a podcast about all things cyber and intelligence. She spoke with some protesters about how they're getting around the government's attempts to control the narrative. And she's with us now. Dina, thanks so much for joining us.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.

MARTIN: So, Dina, one of the fascinating things I learned from your piece is that Iran's internet is not the same internet known by people in the U.S. How is it different and how did that happen?

RASTON: Well, so the first thing you need to know is that most Iranians connect to the internet through their mobile phones. So that means the government has a whole host of ways to control the internet itself just by controlling mobile phone communications. Instead of Google Cloud in Iran, Iranians have something called the National Information Network, and it has what amounts to an internet off switch. So the Iranian authorities have the ability to cut off users' access to the global internet and just provide them with domestic networks. So what that means is that they can control what the Iranian people can see and hear, not just about what's going on in Iran, but what's going on in the wider world as well.

MARTIN: So how did that happen? Like, why is it that way? And is this related to U.S. sanctions somehow?

RASTON: It is. I think the best way to think about it is that the sanctions gave Iranian authorities the cover they needed to convince the Iranian people that they needed some sort of homegrown internet. And since the authorities control it, it really has made a difference during the protests. So the authorities have basically been throttling mobile phone connections between 4 p.m. and 1 a.m., which is basically prime time for demonstrations. And then after 1 a.m., we found it's incredibly easy to talk to people. Like, literally at 1 a.m., we'll be talking to someone, and there'll be sort of a crackly connection, and then boom, 1 a.m. happens, and all of a sudden, their connection is crystal clear.

MARTIN: So how are the Iranian people getting around this? Because clearly, people are still figuring out how to organize. It's difficult, and clearly, they're paying a price for it, but they are figuring this out. So how is that happening?

RASTON: Well, they're being creative. We spoke with a protester in Iran who we'll call Amin (ph). We're not using his real name because, obviously, he could get arrested for talking to foreign journalists. But he told us that a really popular way to get around this Iranian censorship is by using VPNs, something called a virtual private network. And once you get your hands on a VPN - sometimes it can be like an app on your phone - you can connect to it and basically circumvent all the censors. With a VPN, you could connect to websites like WhatsApp or Instagram, which the regime has blocked since the protests began. And what's even better is that you can get on these websites and the regime can't see it's you. So the VPNs aren't just for young, tech savvy people. What surprised us is that a lot of people are using them. Here's what he said.

AMIN: Almost everyone learned how to use VPNs and proxies and stuff like that to kind of circle the censorship. Right now, even my grandmother, who's 78, even my grandmother asked us to set up VPNs for her and she learns how to use them.

MARTIN: So there are VPNs. What else are people doing to kind of - I don't know - muddy their digital footprints or protect themselves online?

RASTON: Well, he also told us that he, for example, is not bringing his phone to protests. Amin is concerned that authorities might find evidence on his phone that he's against the regime. And he said just having photographs of protests on someone's phone could get them in trouble. He's been really careful about his social media presence. For example, he doesn't use his real name. He doesn't have any photographs or details about his family situation. And he even has contingency plans in place should he be arrested by the authorities. And this is what he does if there's a worst-case scenario. Take a listen.

AMIN: Almost everyone I know leaves all their passwords for social media, email everything with their family, and in case they're not back by the time they've told their family they're going to be back, the families ought to destroy everything that's going to be used against their loved one.

MARTIN: So, Dina, let me know here. The U.S. Treasury Department did ease some sanctions against Iran last month. The department announced that it would allow U.S. tech companies to provide hardware, software, cloud services and other technology to the Iranian people. Now, has that had any effect?

RASTON: It's really too early to tell. Researchers and protesters we talked to said this is a great first step, but it's a little late. So we really don't think it's going to help the people protesting now. But this may help them in the future.

MARTIN: That is Dina Temple-Raston, host of the "Click Here" podcast. Dina, thank you.

RASTON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.