(Bloomberg) -- People in Iran are relying on virtual private networks to thwart widespread internet outages, amid intensifying street protests. But the workarounds aren’t working perfectly.
On Friday, mobile networks suffered a “full shutdown,” according to Cloudflare, a content delivery network business. That follows nationwide blackouts from 3:30 p.m. until about 10:00 p.m. on Wednesday, according to a blog post from the company. Iran’s internet use is heavily mobile-based, with some 85% of site requests coming from mobile devices, the blog added.
That would have disrupted attempts to organize street protests. At least 17 people have been killed in clashes between demonstrators and police following the death of a woman in police custody, according to state media sources. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has called the protests -- which started last Friday following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after an arrest by Tehran’s “morality police” -- a conspiracy against the state.
Read More: Iran Vows to Arrest All ‘Illegal’ Protesters to Halt Unrest
Meysam, a Tehran resident who declined to give his surname because of sensitivities speaking to foreign media, said that mobile internet has been almost completely blocked for the last few days and Wi-Fi has been severely cut or restricted, though access appears to be improving slightly. Many virtual private networks, or VPNs -- which hide a user’s location and can be deployed to look at sites that are banned based on geography -- are blocked as is Google, he said.
A representative for the Iranian government in London didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.
NordVPN said it was seeing a “dramatic increase” in requests for its Emergency VPN product, a service that people can request during internet shutdowns, according to spokeswoman Laura Tyrylyte.
Representatives for Alphabet Inc.’s Google didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the status of its services in the country.
In addition to drops in traffic from mobile network operators, fixed-line traffic in the city of Sanandaj dropped to zero for much of Monday evening on the network run by the Telecommunication Company of Iran, according to Cloudflare.
Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk said he will seek an exemption to Iranian sanctions so he can connect people using the Starlink satellite network owned by his Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which beams broadband directly between thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit and small ground-based terminals. Starlink sent thousands of these terminals to Ukraine, proving critical in its resistance to Russia.
Bloomberg has found some VPNs are working, but only intermittently, and not on all devices. Likewise, when home and mobile connections work, they are not reliable.
Iran has often used internet blackouts to quell unrest. It had also shuttered access in 2019 after an increase in fuel prices triggered demonstrations around the country, only displaying official and domestic websites and applications.
Read More: Musk Should Get Starlink Waiver for Iran, Lawmakers Say
Specific sites have also apparently suffered blocks: successful requests to access Instagram dropped sharply on Wednesday afternoon, and for WhatsApp the signals dropped to almost zero from 7:10 p.m. the same day, according to the Cloudflare blog. Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri said “people in Iran are being cut off from online apps and services” and added “we hope their right to be online will be reinstated quickly.”
WhatsApp was hit with complaints online that its services weren’t working properly for users with Iranian phone numbers - even, in some cases, if those people weren’t in Iran.
In a Tweet, WhatsApp said “We are not blocking Iranian numbers. We are working to keep our Iranian friends connected and will do anything within our technical capacity to keep our service up and running.”
Encrypted messaging app Signal said it was blocked in Iran and encouraged people to host more proxy servers, which can be used to bypass blockages, and shared instructions. It was an update of a post originally published in 2021 during a similar situation in Iran, it said.
The Tor Project, which oversees the anonymity-focused Tor Browser associated with the “dark web”, also shared ways to circumvent blocks.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.