Tehran, Iran – “Activation of Starlink.”
That’s how billionaire Elon Musk generated headlines last week as he often does, in a nutshell on Twitter. This time he was referring to the ongoing protests in Iran.
It was promising to allow Iranians affected by state-imposed internet restrictions to use its SpaceX-operated satellite internet network. And the US government has said it will support its efforts by easing sanctions against Iran, promoting free use of the internet and issuing the necessary permits for the process to work.
But while bringing the Internet to Iran via satellite link isn’t out of the question, a number of serious challenges make it highly unlikely, at least in the short term.
There have so far been 10 nights of protests, which began after a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, died in the custody of Iran’s morality police after being arrested for allegedly violating the country’s conservative Muslim dress code.
Authorities have not released official tallies, but protests have been recorded in most of Iran’s 31 provinces and dozens are thought to have been killed and thousands arrested.
Senior officials, including President Ebrahim Raisi, and state media denounced what they called “riots,” as several police officers, security forces and members of the Basij paramilitary force were killed and public property damaged.
There have also so far been two pro-establishment demonstrations, on Friday and Sunday, to counter the protests, as authorities also accused “terrorist” groups of trying to work towards secessionist goals.
Citing “security concerns,” authorities have introduced the toughest internet restrictions across Iran since the November 2019 protests.
What would Starlink need to work?
In addition to a subscription service, it is necessary to connect Starlink terminals – the hardware that would allow the user to connect.
Starlink has reportedly sent more than 15,000 terminals to Ukraine, a US ally, following Russia’s invasion in February.
But Iran sees the Starlink terminals as a security threat and will prevent them from entering the country.
For Starlink to work, thousands of Starlink terminals would have to be smuggled into Iran at a significant cost, probably in the millions of dollars.
Iran’s foreign ministry last week called the US lifting some of its internet-related sanctions an effort to “violate Iran’s sovereignty.” He said he would take immediate action.
Separately, Iranian officials blocked Starlink’s website the same day.
What are the potential legal challenges?
News of Starlink’s activation has circulated far and wide among Iranians, many of whom have pinned their hopes on the service.
But so far, the only tangible result has been hackers releasing malware under the guise of software needed to connect to Starlink to trick users.
Starlink could potentially face legal and regulatory consequences if it were to significantly advance its plans without cooperation from the Iranian government.
Iran has had a history of pursuing grievances with Western powers, particularly regarding the United States and its far-reaching sanctions.
It’s possible that if Starlink’s plans do go ahead, Iran could go to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations’ international communications regulator, or other authorities to legally protest the move.
“The problem is that a company probably cannot offer services on Iran in violation of international regulations. It is possible that the Islamic Republic will make a credible complaint against the company and create trouble for it,” tweeted Jadi, a prominent Iranian developer and tech blogger.
Steps to get there #starlinks to Iran:
1. America, give permission
2. Give permission to Iran
3. Its satellites serve Iran
4. You should have a special dish and receiver
5. Purchase a subscription
6. Install the app and set the satellite
Now decide for yourself, is this app someone told you to install reasonable or suspicious?
– so and so) September 25, 2022
[Translation: Levels of Starlink reaching Iran: 1. US gives permit 2. Iran gives permit 3. Satellites offer services to Iran 4. You have the special receiver 5. You buy a subscription 6. You install the app and set the satellite Now you decide for yourself, are the apps that people tell you to install reasonable or suspicious?]
How is internet restricted in Iran right now?
When protests in November 2019 erupted across Iran following a sudden rise in fuel prices, there was a total internet shutdown for nearly a week, leaving most of Iran’s 85 million population offline.
For the first few days, local websites were down and government offices and banks were offline.
After the first week, the general lockdown was lifted, but some restrictions continued in parts of the country where protests were still ongoing.
But this time things are different, as the authorities are finding different ways to restrict Internet access.
Local sites and services have remained online so as not to affect the domestic economy. And some ISPs, especially private companies, have been less affected than others.
But for people who use the country’s biggest providers like MCI and Irancell, using their cellphones and getting internet at home has become more difficult.
Connectivity is limited from around 4pm until after midnight when protests are underway. During those hours it also becomes extremely difficult to connect to virtual private networks (VPNs), which most Iranians use to get around restrictions.
WhatsApp and Instagram remain blocked across the country, meaning all major social media and messaging apps have now been filtered out in Iran.