Millions of Iranians who have depended on social media advertising fear losing their livelihood as authorities block internet access amid anti-government protests.
Authorities argue that the tougher restrictions on social media and the internet are necessary because of the so-called “riots” across the country over the past month. They blame protesters, whom they invariably call “rioters,” for the dangers to millions of people whose businesses are affected.
These small businesses, especially those run by women at home or on small farms in rural areas, relied heavily on Instagram for advertising and WhatsApp for communicating with potential customers. The number of these companies has grown exponentially in the wake of the Covid pandemic.
Larger e-commerce companies such as online retailers, hotel and transport bookings and food delivery services have lost large market shares.
The government has shut down internet access to prevent the spread of news and images about protests and disrupt contact between protesters by blocking Instagram and WhatsApp. Last week they went a step further, even shutting down regular mobile messaging (SMS) services and resorted to jamming foreign Persian-language satellite TV channels as activists called for nationwide demonstrations for a day.
Many say these measures have largely failed as protesters persevere, releasing footage of protests as soon as they can connect to the internet via their cellphones or broadband.
“We’ve experienced the most severe filtering and internet disruption in the past month, but news [of the protests] have reached everything from the fire at Evin Prison to confiscation of passports [dissident] Artist”, one of the many tweets on the subject said.
“It just showed the understanding of this government [the concepts of] Media and cyberspace is very limited and their actions have done nothing beyond harming businesses. Also, Starlink is on the way too!” the tweet said.
Speaking at an event in Mazandaran province in northern Iran to mark National E-Commerce Day on Sunday, Mahmoud Leiaei said, said the deputy communications minister During his visit to the province, people had complained to him about Instagram filtering.
Leiaei added that their complaints made him realize that even in rural areas, people depended on Instagram to sell their products. He blamed these people whose businesses are suffering because, he said, they should have heeded authorities’ warnings and migrated from foreign social media and messaging platforms to those developed in Iran.
Social media users in Iran have largely shunned domestically developed social media platforms and apps like Wisgoon and Nazdika, which are set to replace Instagram, and Rubika, a messaging app. People know that security services can control and spy on home apps.
Experts also warn against these platforms are very vulnerable to censorship and there are serious security and privacy concerns.
For years, many in Iran have relied on VPNs and anti-filtering software to navigate government censorship and blocked social media and websites. However, the authorities have regularly shut down the mobile internet, completely cutting off any type of access. VPN usage increased 30x after the recent nationwide protests.
All Iranian cell phone providers now only offer their Internet services if this is permitted by the authorities, who are imposing a curfew. Access to mobile internet is much more important than broadband, which only 10 percent of Iranians subscribe to. The government has also blocked access to the global internet, restricting online activity to those allowed by a very tightly controlled intranet called the National Information Network (NIN).