One November morning last year, Mehdi Yahyanejad listened to a voicemail in his Los Angeles office: “I’m contacting you from the city of Tehran,” said the voice. “This was the first time I’ve experienced an internet shutdown. … It feels like I’m in a prison.”
A few weeks earlier, Iran’s largest mobile networks and internet providers went offline. Amid weeks of growing anti-regime protests, Iranian authorities imposed the longest internet shutdown in the country’s history, effectively cutting off external communication for over 80 million Iranians. In an unprecedented crackdown, regime forces killed more than 300 protesters and arrested over 7,000 people. When access was finally restored on November 23, nearly half the country was still unable to come online.
Nine months after the November blackout, Iranians still live in fear of another all-out shutdown. As authorities tighten their hold on internet access, diaspora-led companies are filling the gap for Iranians who are seeking a way to bypass censors. The circumvention tools, created largely by diaspora entrepreneurs, are becoming increasingly critical as they face a crackdown at home and the bite of American-led sanctions online.
On November 15, as Iranian authorities first moved to induce the digital blackout, 44-year-old Yahyanejad raced against the clock in Los Angeles to make sure that people back home had downloaded his satellite file-casting application Toosheh. “It was a very small window,” says Yahyanejad. “Once they were fully disconnected, I wasn’t sure they’d be able to download the software.”
Launched by Yahyanejad in 2016, the technology aggregates uncensored content, like news articles, YouTube videos, and podcasts, and sends it to Iranian homes directly via satellite TV. When Yahyanejad first began developing Toosheh in 2013, an estimated 70% of Iranian households owned a satellite dish, while around 20% had access to the internet. Even as internet access has grown, state censorship means Toosheh’s satellite technology is a much more reliable source for uncensored content. Iranians can install Toosheh’s satellite channel and receive a daily dispatch in the form of a file package of up to 8 gigabytes. Once a user downloads the app, the satellite transfers circumvent the internet entirely.
Yahyanejad says Toosheh gained nearly 100,000 new Iranian users in November 2019. In the absence of an internet connection, it became the only way for many users to access news from the outside world. The voice on Toosheh’s voicemail belonged to one such user, a 34-year-old high school principal in Tehran who downloaded emergency VPN and proxy tools delivered to him through the satellite service.
Having navigated extensive cyber censorship for over a decade, Iranians are tech savvy and adept at nimbly crossing firewalls, using proxies and foreign circumvention tools. “It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game,” says Fereidoon Bashar, executive director of ASL19, a Canadian organization working to help Iranians bypass internet censorship. The group often works in tandem with Yahyanejad to distribute proxy tools.
Bashar says Iranians adapt quickly to ever-changing institutionalized control online. But the last five years of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s rule have seen a tighter grip on internet connections. Site blocking and calculated internet outages have become easier to enforce: the regime has reduced Iran’s dependence on global networks by pushing a local intranet, with the aim to keep online traffic inside the country. With strict American sanctions that threaten hefty fines for companies interfacing with Iran, foreign tech companies limit ordinary Iranians’ ability to purchase reliable proxies out of an abundance of caution. Riddled with insecurity, the local VPN black market is not a reliable option for those trying to avoid government attention.
But even as internet access grew incrementally difficult over the years, no one saw the November blackout coming. “An internet shutdown was previously viewed as a kind of dystopian political campaign,” says Kaveh Azarhoosh, an internet policy researcher. In November, the worst-case scenario for Iran’s censorship suddenly became a reality.
In the early days of the protest, Toosheh created a special “Protest News Package.” Every night, after aggregating content from over 200 publications, Toosheh delivered digital bundles containing clips of protests occuring in different cities: Tabriz, Qom, Shiraz, Mashhad, and others. It also contained slides about how to stay safe during a protest; crucial news coverage from banned sites, like the New York Times, Voice of America Persian, and Deutsche Welle; and a curated compilation of tweets from Iranian politicians. These packages weren’t just bringing news of the outside world to Iran: they kept Iranians informed about what was happening inside their own country too.
Yahyanejad, a physicist by training, left Iran in 1997 to pursue a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “I’ve lived in Iran, and I’ve gone to school and college there,” he explains. “I know that this repressive government exists because they are able to control the flow of information.” He says he’s always had an interest in limiting their control. “I want,” he says, “to see democracy in Iran in my lifetime.”
In 2006, Yahyanejad launched a Reddit-like forum called Balatarin. “Its popularity surprised me,” he says. The site posted a translated rumor about the supreme leader’s death, after he hadn’t been seen in public for two months, and was swiftly blocked by Iran shortly after. The moment was a turning point for Yahyanejad, who says, “I made a conscious decision to keep the platform open at a personal cost.”
The Iranian blocks on Balatarin inspired Yahyanejad to explore censorship circumvention. He launched the satellite app Toosheh in 2016. “I went on BBC Persian’s ‘Newshour,’ and as soon as I talked about it, people started downloading and testing it immediately,” he says.
Yahyanjad finds himself among a cohort of diaspora Iranians working to fight the regime’s censors. ASL19, the Canadian technology group, collaborated with him to deliver proxy tools to over half a million Iranians during November’s shutdown. ASL19’s Bashar, who left Iran in the early 2000s before the tumultuous Green Movement, says diaspora Iranians are stepping into the field because Iranians “risk harsh conditions, imprisonment, and long sentences” if they’re caught creating circumvention tools inside the country.
But even outside of Iran, outspoken diaspora activists like Bashar and Yahyanejad face immense risks. In June, it was reported that an Iranian activist named Ruhollah Zam was sentenced to death in Iran after creating a popular anti-government Telegram news channel that he operated while living in exile in France. The channel, with 1.4 million followers, was shut down shortly after. For Yahyanejad, who knew of Ruhollah through the diaspora community, the ordeal was a shot across the bow. “I can never go back to Iran,” Yahyanejad admits. “But I see myself as part of the movement.”
Yahyanejad’s work has become crucial for Iranians, even after November’s shutdown. On July 14, following news that Iran’s Supreme Court had upheld the death sentences of three young anti-regime protesters, Iranians took to banned social media sites in an unprecedented protest, with over 6 million posts under the hashtag #DontExecute. Hours after #DontExecute began trending online, digital rights organization NetBlocks monitored disruptions in the network. Panicked users, still reeling from November’s shutdown, speculated another block was imminent. Luckily, an all-out ban didn’t occur, but the renewed threat of one was enough to increase Toosheh’s usage by more than 50% in the days that followed.
For Yahyanejad, who has been actively fighting the Iranian regime’s censorship for over a decade, the past year is proof that his work is even more necessary. “Internet shutdowns are psychological tools designed to terrify populations, to convince them that they are voiceless,” he says. “Fighting shutdowns is important so that you can show people that they are not alone and that there are others.”