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Protests spur Internet disruptions in Iran

Protests spur Internet disruptions in Iran

Over the past several days, protests and demonstrations have erupted across Iran in response to the death of Mahsa Amini. Amini was a 22-year-old woman from the Kurdistan Province of Iran, and was arrested on September 13, 2022, in Tehran by Iran’s “morality police”, a unit that enforces strict dress codes for women. She died on September 16 while in police custody.

Published reports indicate that the growing protests have resulted in at least eight deaths. Iran has a history of restricting Internet connectivity in response to protests, taking such steps in May 2022, February 2021, and November 2019. They have taken a similar approach to the current protests, including disrupting Internet connectivity, blocking social media platforms, and blocking DNS. The impact of these actions, as seen through Cloudflare’s data, are reviewed below.

Impact to Internet traffic

In the city of Sanandij in the Kurdistan Province, several days of anti-government protests took place after the death of Mahsa Amini. In response, the government reportedly disrupted Internet connectivity there on September 19. This disruption is clearly visible in the graph below, with traffic on TCI (AS58224), Iran’s fixed-line incumbent operator, in Sanandij dropping to zero between 1630 and 1925 UTC, except for a brief spike evident between 1715 and 1725 UTC.

On September 21, Internet disruptions started to become more widespread, with mobile networks effectively shut down nationwide. (Iran is a heavily mobile-centric country, with Cloudflare Radar reporting that 85% of requests are made from mobile devices.) Internet traffic from Iran Mobile Communications Company (AS197207) started to decline around 1530 UTC, and remained near zero until it started to recover at 2200 UTC, returning to “normal” levels by the end of the day.

Internet traffic from RighTel (AS57218) began to decline around 1630 UTC. After an outage lasting more than 12 hours, traffic returned at 0510 UTC.

Internet traffic from MTN Irancell (AS44244) began to drop just before 1700 UTC. After a 12-hour outage, traffic began recovering at 0450 UTC.

The impact of these disruptions is also visible when looking at traffic at both a regional and national level. In Tehran Province, HTTP request volume declined by approximately 70% around 1600 UTC, and continued to drop for the next several hours before seeing a slight recovery at 2200 UTC, likely related to the recovery also seen at that time on AS197207.

Similarly, Internet traffic volumes across the whole country began to decline just after 1600 UTC, falling approximately 40%. Nominal recovery at 2200 UTC is visible in this view as well, again likely from the increase in traffic from AS197207. More aggressive traffic growth is visible starting around 0500 UTC, after the remaining two mobile network providers came back online.

DNS blocking

In addition to shutting down mobile Internet providers within the country, Iran’s government also reportedly blocked access to social media platform Instagram, as well as blocking access to DNS-over-HTTPS from open DNS resolver services including Quad9, Google’s 8.8.8.8, and Cloudflare’s 1.1.1.1. Analysis of requests originating in Iran to 1.1.1.1 illustrates the impacts of these blocking attempts.

In analyzing DNS requests to Cloudflare’s resolver for domains associated with leading social media platforms, we observe that requests for instagram.com hostnames drop sharply at 1310 UTC, remaining lower for the rest of the day, except for a significant unexplained spike in requests between 1540 and 1610 UTC. Request volumes for hostnames associated with other leading social media platforms did not appear to be similarly affected.

In addition, it was reported that access to WhatsApp had also been blocked in Iran. This can be seen in resolution requests to Cloudflare’s resolver for whatsapp.com hostnames. The graph below shows a sharp decline in query traffic at 1910 UTC, dropping to near zero.

The Open Observatory for Network Interference (OONI), an organization that measures Internet censorship, reported in a Tweet that the cloudflare-dns.com domain name, used for DNS-over-HTTPS (DoH) and DNS-over-TLS (DoT) connections to Cloudflare’s DNS resolver, was blocked in Iran on September 20. This is clearly evident in the graph below, with resolution volume over DoH and DoT dropping to zero at 1940 UTC. The OONI tweet also noted that the 1.1.1.1 IP address “remains blocked on most networks.” The trend line for resolution over TCP or UDP (on port 53) in the graph below suggests that the IP address is not universally blocked, as there are still resolution requests reaching Cloudflare.

Interested parties can use Cloudflare Radar to monitor the impact of such government-directed Internet disruptions, and can follow @CloudflareRadar on Twitter for updates on Internet disruptions as they occur.

Source:: CloudFlare