Millions of Iranians who depended on social media advertising fear losing their livelihood as authorities block Internet access amid antigovernment protests.

Authorities argue that the stricter social media and internet restrictions are required due to what they call “riots” across the country over the past month. They blame protesters, who they invariably refer to as “rioters” for the perils of millions of people whose businesses, have been affected.

These small businesses, particularly those run from homes by women or small farms in rural areas, very heavily relied on Instagram for advertising and WhatsApp for communication with potential customers. The number of these businesses exponentially grew after the Covid pandemic.

Larger e-commerce companies such as online retailers, hotel and transportation bookings and food delivery services have lost large market shares.

The government has blocked access to Internet to prevent the spread of news and images about protests disrupt contact among protesters by blocking Instagram and WhatsApp. Last week they went one step further and even shut down the normal mobile messaging (SMS) services and resorted to jamming foreign-based Persian language satellite TV channels when activists called for one day of nationwide demonstrations.

These measure, many say, have largely failed as protesters persevere and post footage of protests as soon as they can connect to the internet through their mobiles or broadband.

“We have undergone the severest filtering and internet disruption over the past month but news [of the protests] have reached everyone, from the blaze at Evin Prison to the confiscation of passports of [dissident] artists,” one of the many tweets on this topic said.

“It just showed that government’s understanding of [the concepts of] media and cyberspace is very limited, and their measures have made no difference apart from damaging businesses. Moreover, Starlink is on the way too!” the tweet said.

Speaking at an event in Mazandaran Province in the north of Iran on the National E-Commerce Day on Sunday, Mahmoud Leiaei, deputy communications minister said during his visit to the province people had complained to him about the filtering of Instagram.

Leiaei added that their complaints made him realize that even in rural areas people had depended on Instagram for selling their produce. He blamed these people whose businesses are suffering because, he said, they should have heeded authorities’ warnings and migrated from foreign social media and messaging platforms to those developed in Iran.

Social media users in Iran have largely shunned domestically developed social media platforms and applications such as Wisgoon and Nazdika, designed to replace Instagram, and Rubika, a messaging application. People know that security services control the domestic apps and can spy on them.

Experts also warn that these platforms are very vulnerable to censorship and there are serious safety and privacy concerns.

For years, many in Iran have relied on VPNs and anti-filtering software to navigate through government censorship and blocked social media and websites. But authorities have been regularly shutting down mobile internet which completely stops any kind of access. The use of VPNs surged by 30-fold following the recent nationwide protests.

All Iranian mobile carriers now only offer their internet services when permitted by authorities who are imposing a curfew style control. Access to mobile internet is much more important than broadband which only 10 percent of Iranians subscribe to. The government has also cut off access to the global web and limited online activities to those allowed by a very heavily controlled intranet, called the National Information Network (NIN).

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