On November 16, 2019, the
Iranian government shut down the Internet throughout the country following a
decision to triple the price of fuel overnight.
The abrupt price hike, coming
at a time when Iranians are already dealing with 40 percent inflation in part
because of US sanctions, plunged the country into upheaval as people took to
streets and staged protests that turned bloody in some areas. Only after
clashes began to wane did authorities give the green light for a “gradual”
reestablishment of Internet connections on November 21. By Sunday, landline Internet
connections were restored in most cities, but mobile data was still not
The five-day blackout
surprised many Iranians and made them fearful that such an event could happen
again. It derailed daily life, resulting in widespread disruptions in services
including healthcare, financial transactions and even tests for admission to
A young artist who asked that
his name not be used visited a drugstore near Haft-e-Tir Square on November 16 to
fill a prescription for his sister.He
told this reporter that the pharmacist said he couldn’t fill the prescription
because “I can’t register your prescriptions on the insurer’s website. Come
back later.” The young artist left the pharmacy in tears. He was eventually
able to find the medication but had to pay extra.
A pharmacist in central Tehran
told this reporter, “The Internet shutdown has disrupted the supply of
medicine. There are many drugs that people cannot afford without their
Other Iranians could not use
insurance to pay for doctor visits.
The disrupted communications also
caused severe anxiety among Iranians with relatives living abroad who normally
use WhatsApp, Telegram, and Skype for daily chats with loved ones.
The fiancé of one young
Iranian moved to the United States three months ago to continue her education.
During the Internet blackout, they had to resort to landline telephones to
check on each other.
The former head of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce, Mohessen Jalalpour, estimates that the blackout cost the Iranian economy $1.5 billion.
“Costs aside, I didn’t feel safe talking on
the phone anymore,” the young Iranian said in an interview. “WhatsApp calls are
end-to-end encrypted. It provided us with a sense of privacy. That’s not the
case with phone calls.”
There are no official
statistics on the number of Iranians living outside the Islamic Republic’s
borders but they are believed to number at least seven million. Many in the
diaspora took to social media to urge the Iranian government to restore the
Internet, using hashtags such as #Internet4Iran
that vent viral.
Hardliner politicians who have
long opposed perceived foreign influence in Iran urged the government to keep
the ban in place. They are demanding launch of a so-called “national internet,”
a concept that has been ridiculed by Communications Minister Mohammad Javad
“There is no such thing as
‘national internet’; this concept is a caricature,” Jahromi told
the Iranian parliament’s news outlet. “This is not disruption. The
Internet has been cut off and the Supreme National Security Council has ordered
During the blackout, the
Communications Ministry implemented measures to preserve a semblance of
stability. Ride-hailing and domestic messaging apps were among services
restored. The ministry also provided local news outlets with intermittent
access to the Internet.
Homegrown messaging apps were
working, but many Iranians shunned them. Most are not open source and are
controlled by state agencies or semi-state owned companies.
Among the casualties of the blackout,
according to Jahromi, were small and medium sized enterprises and startups.
Jahromi told the state
news agency IRNA on November 19that
these companies were able to start offering services again using Iran’s
National Information Network (NIN), an intranet that operates independently
from the Internet.
“If it was not for the
National Information Network, 2.5 million people employed by online mobility
service providers would have joined the protesters in the streets,” Jahromi told
However, the NIN is not a
substitute for the World Wide Web. The Tehran newspaper Hamshahri reported that many small firms would
have been pushed into bankruptcy if normal communication services had not been restored.
Nazanin Daneshvar, CEO of the
website Takhfifan told Hamshahri, “We have lost 80 percent of our sales… [If
the internet connection is not restored] we’ll be forced to close down our
In addition to startups,
industries that rely on foreign partners and suppliers were hit hard by the Internet
outage. An Iranian woman who works for a local automotive company and asked
that her name not be used, said in an interview: “We used to chat with our
Chinese partners constantly via WeChat [a Chinese messaging app]. Our engineers
rely on their Chinese counterparts’ counsel. Being cut off from the Internet,
our operations have been disrupted.”
The former head of Iran’s
Chamber of Commerce, Mohessen Jalalpour, estimates that the blackout cost the
Iranian economy $1.5 billion. He told Khabaronline: “The
internet shutdown cut us off from communicating with our foreign partners. We
simply were not able to answer emails. Using telephone services and fax for
business communications has become a thing of the past.”
Netblocks.org reported that the Internet shutdown
cost Iran $369.5 million a day or $15.4 million per hour.
The decision to interrupt
Internet connectivity was an especially big blow to a population that is among
the world’s most dedicated Internet users. According to Iran’s Communications
Regulatory Authority, 71 million Internet subscriptions have been registered in
a country of 83 million people – a rate of 85.7 percent Internet penetration nationwide.
The global average is about 67 percent.
A joint report from
Hootsuite and We Are Social entitled “Global Digital 2019put the number of Iranian social media users at 47 million, or 57
percent of the population. That is not far behind the 70 percent rate in the
The most popular social media
platform in Iran was Telegram with 40 million users before it was banned in
April 2018. Instagram hit 24 million active users in the same period, making
Iran the seventh biggest market for the photo-sharing app.
One avid Instagram user told
this reporter, “With the Internet cut off, I have got too much spare time on my
hands. I would normally check my Instagram feed or chat with friends online. I
don’t know what to do in my free time.”
During the blackout, people also
could not access navigation apps such as Google Maps and Waze, as well as social
media platforms and news websites.
One of those interviewed told
this reporter that the worst was the inability to access Google as well as
streaming services. Iranian millennials, just like their peers abroad, have stopped
storing information on their handsets and computers. “I used to listen to my
favorite songs on SoundCloud and Spotify,” said the young woman, who asked to
remain anonymous. “Now I am going through my computer’s hard drive to find
something to listen to.”
Many Iranians rely on cloud
services for storing data or sharing it with friends. “Thanks to the Internet
blockade, we are back to using flash drives,” she said.
The blackout also disrupted
collaboration among Iranian scientists and foreign peers using Gmail and Skype.
Furthermore, every year, thousands of
Iranian students apply for masters and Ph.D. programs in Western universities,
including the US. A main requirement is proof of language proficiency.
When one young scholar showed
up during the blackout for an English exam, he was told that the test had been
canceled. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “Most application deadlines are
fast approaching. If you have ever gone through the application process, you
would know how awfully stressful it is. The government’s decision to pull the
plug on connectivity for all has added a cherry on the top.”
In solidarity with their
countrymen, Iranian students in the US and European countries started
petitioning university admission offices to extend application deadlines for
people living in Iran. Several institutions heeded the call and extended their
Khosro Kalbasi is a Tehran-based
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