A woman uses a smartphone while standing on a street in the Iranian capital Tehran on November 23, 2019. Photo: AFP/Atta Kenare

Iran this week was gradually reinstating internet and cell phone data services to its 80 million people, after 10 days of an unprecedented state-imposed blackout.

But the ramifications of the nationwide cuts, put in place November 16 in response to an outburst of domestic dissent over petrol taxes, and still in the process of being fully restored, are still being felt.

Academics and businessmen, web developers and travel agencies, journalists and startups were among those professions and sectors most impacted by the shutdown, during which time Amnesty International reported more than 100 protesters were killed.

Hojjat Mehrabi, a member of a product managing team at Aparat, an Iranian video sharing and streaming service that is attempting to be the Iranian version of YouTube, said the activities of his company were brought to a halt during the first two days of the blackout.

“In intra-organizational terms, we were totally idle … There were two days in the office when my colleagues and I had nothing to do other than to look at each other,” he told Asia Times.

After two days, he says, the company managed to find a workaround. But Mehrabi said there are thousands of people involved in content production in Iran whose income was affected by the restrictions.

“We rely on a range of digital marketing services whose core is built upon internet services outside Iran. These platforms, such as Google Maps or marketing platforms that increase engagement or analytics services, were entirely unavailable to us after the blackout started, and I know at least 90% of Iranian startups are dependent upon such services,” he added.

Losses suffered

The country’s communications sector alone lost US$60 million each day the internet was cut off nationally, according to Afshin Kolahi, a member of the board of governors of Iran’s Information and Communications Technology Federation, Radio Farda reported.

Iran’s E-Commerce Commission estimates the decline in online and mobile-based transactions during the ban cost Iran’s economy a total of $240 million.

“I couldn’t even do a simple search on the web,” said Nahid Lakanzadeh, a language translator in northern Iran.

“I needed an online dictionary. It was unavailable. I should have sent an urgent email. I couldn’t. I had to find a musical notation. It was impossible. I wanted to access my files on my Google Drive. Unattainable.

“I had the feeling of being relegated to and living in the Stone Age,” Lakanzadeh told Asia Times. 

In a thread of tweets, Ayna, a cancer patient in Tehran, shared her personal account of how the internet shutdown had interfered with her treatment: “Before each chemotherapy session, we undergo a Red Blood Cells (RBCs) count test and send an image of the test results to our oncology center using WhatsApp, email or other online means so that they can inform us if we can visit the center for therapy, or if the results are not satisfactory and we should wait for a week,” she said.  

Last week, however, it was impossible for cancer patients to know of their results remotely, forcing them to travel long distances to receive results in person, sometimes only to be told their RBC count was not high enough. 

Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Oracle’s Internet Intelligence team, described the blackout as unprecedented: “Unlike previous efforts at censorship and throttling, Iran is experiencing a multi-day wholesale disconnect for much of its population – arguably the largest such event ever for Iran.”

Tourism setback

Tourism, one of the most critical generators of foreign currency for Iran under sanctions, was also impacted by the internet blackout.

The tourism industry had blossomed in Iran after the July 2015 nuclear deal heralded Iran’s reconnection to the outside world. More than 5.5 million foreign visitors traveled to Iran in 2016.

The figure was relatively smaller a year later, but Iran had nonetheless secured a berth in major international newspapers, travel websites and directories’ must-visit lists and emerged as a tourist-friendly, safe and beautiful country.

More than one year after US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal and the subsequent imposition of draconian economic sanctions, which have decimated the country’s oil revenues, tourism had continued to provide economic relief for the Islamic Republic. 

But the government crackdown on the nationwide protests, namely the internet shutdown, has taken a heavy toll on the tourism sector, damaging ties with international tour groups. 

In a letter to the Supreme National Security Council shortly after internet connectivity was blocked, the Iran Tour Operators Association implored the government to allow tour operators to access the internet.

Instead, they were left unable to communicate with travel agencies outside Iran, and thus unable to plan for arrivals or cancellations by their clients. 

The new normal?

President Hassan Rouhani, while declaring victory over the “enemies” of Iran in quelling the protests, at the same time has sought to reassure residents after the debilitating internet blockade.

In a country with serious human rights challenges, millions of Iranians consider access to the internet and social media one of their few freedoms that haven’t yet been completely taken away.

“To prevent the normalization of internet blackouts, we are working on a bill that would require parliamentary approval to shut down the internet or any application with over 1 million Iranian users,” tweeted Iran’s deputy minister of communications on Wednesday. 

“Internet, like water, like air, must not be disconnected,” added the official, Amir Nazemy.

The online eclipse was all-encompassing, and with the exception of banks, some state organizations and the government authorities, almost no one in Iran was able to go online. Only the governmental websites and state-sanctioned online services and applications remained available. 

There has long been a debate in Iran about the replacement of the internet with a National Information Network, that would only allow domestic services, government-sanctioned applications and local news websites to be accessible inside Iran.

This would mean ubiquitous sites like Google, Gmail, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Telegram and Instagram, already subject to restrictions, would be totally inaccessible to Iranians. Critics have compared it to Kwangmyong (Bright Light), the North Korean version of a national internet.

Ultra-conservatives and hardliners are proponents of this idea.

In a video message, the Rouhani-allied communications and technology minister, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, offered his apologies to the Iranian people for the disruptions to their lives and work.

The US government on November 22 imposed sanctions on Jahromi over his alleged role in the shutdown. But it appears the decision was not his.

The BBC Persian service reported that an entity called the Security Council of the Nation was responsible for decreeing the ban on internet connectivity. The relatively unknown body is chaired by the minister of interior, who would have made the controversial decision.

Minister of Interior Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli – one of a handful of conservatives in the moderate Rouhani administration – has not granted any interviews on the subject. 

Read more here: Perfect economic storm fuels new protests in Iran

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