In the midst of protests against the country’s oppressive theocracy, SpaceX’s Starlink internet service has been activated in Iran.
The news came via, of course, Twitter, where Carnegie Endowment for International Peace senior fellow Karim Sadjadpour tweeted on September 25 that Musk gave him the go-ahead to relay the message.
“Starlink is now activated in Iran,” Sadjadpour quoted Musk. “It requires the use of terminals in-country, which I suspect the [Iranian] government will not support, but if anyone can get terminals into Iran, they will work.”
Starlink uses a network of low-orbit satellites to beam space internet anywhere that their receiving terminals can be set up.
It wouldn’t be the first time Starlink’s offered a lifeline in difficult times. It’s been used to help bring internet to wildfire-ravaged Washington state and was rapidly deployed to Ukraine — where it has beaten back Russian attacks and helped Ukrainian drones reduce Russian tanks to scrap.
But Ukraine is a friendly government who encouraged the arrival of Starlink terminals — something Iran is not going to do.
Protests erupt: Iran has been wracked by protests for over a week, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died in the custody of the “Guidance Patrol,” the “morality police” who enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law.
A continuous presence in Iran in one form or another since the revolution in 1979, morality police are not a core tenet of Islam, as The Economist noted; the first modern version of morality police was established in 1926, with the iteration currently causing outrage in Iran established only in 2005.
Amini, a Kurdish woman, was arrested in the capital city of Tehran for “justification and education” about the hijab, a traditional head covering that women in Iran are mandated by the government to wear, the BBC reported; according to the morality police, it was reportedly too loose.
An internet crackdown has begun, with gaining internet access becoming difficult and social media sites like WhatsApp and Instagram blocked.
According to eyewitnesses, Amini was beaten inside the police van, which the police have denied. Her family, witnesses, and protestors say she died from head trauma at the police’s hands; the police state she died of a sudden heart condition.
“She was tortured in the van after her arrest, then tortured at the police station for half an hour, then hit on her head and she collapsed,” Amini’s cousin Erfan Mortezaei, who lives in exile in Iraq but maintains communication with the family, told CBS News.
Since then, protesters have taken to the streets, mainly young people, in defiance of the regime. Women have burned their head coverings, while young men have also joined the opposition. According to CBS, chants of “death to the dictator,” referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can be heard.
The police have used tear gas, water cannons, and even live ammunition against protesters. According to CBS, the Norwegian-based organization Iran Human Rights puts the death toll thus far at 75 — other groups have it closer to 40 — and the Iranian government says 1,200 people have been arrested.
An internet crackdown has also begun, according to monitoring group NetBlocks, who reported “near-total” internet disruption in the Kurdish region last week. In response, the US has modified sanctions on Iran, allowing the export of technology to help Iranians access the internet.
“As courageous Iranians take to the streets to protest the death of Mahsa Amini, the United States is redoubling its support for the free flow of information to the Iranian people,” Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said.
“With these changes, we are helping the Iranian people be better equipped to counter the government’s efforts to surveil and censor them.”
Starlink in Iran: According to the Financial Times, the relaxed sanctions will allow tech companies to provide “secure platforms and services” to Iran, as well as exporting private satellite internet equipment, like Starlink terminals.
The challenge now will be getting the terminals into the country.
Todd Humphreys, an engineering professor at the University of Texas who studies satellite communication and has done consulting work for Starlink, believes that the smuggling in of stations at scale makes Starlink an impractical solution, he told The Intercept, and that creating DIY versions will not likely be an option.
“It’s not like you can build a homebrew receiver,” Humphreys said. “It’s a very complicated signal structure with a very wideband signal. Even a research organization would have a hard time.”
And while bootleg satellite TV can find its way inside Iran, Starlink terminals could pose a different kind of danger, Rose Croshier, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, told The Intercept.
“A word of caution: TV dishes are passive — they don’t transmit — so a Starlink terminal (that both receives and transmits data) in a crowd of illegal satellite dishes would still be very findable by Iranian authorities,” Croshier said.
Al Jazeera reported that people using Iran’s largest internet service providers, like MCI and Irancell, are having a difficult time accessing the internet from mobile devices or at home, and especially so from 4pm to midnight — when protests are taking place and using VPNs to do an end-around of government surveillance is difficult.
The Qatari state-owned outlet also reported that WhatsApp and Instagram are down throughout the country, while malware apps pretending to be necessary to connect to Starlink have begun showing up.
In the future, satellite internet like Starlink, when combined with large players like T Mobile, may indeed be able to defeat censorship. But for now, it may be limited to only being as helpful as the terminals that can get in.
What the Iranian government, which knows, as The Intercept points out, about Starlink’s activation via Twitter, may do — or not do — regarding the terminals is not currently known.
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