TEHRAN: Banned from using popular Western apps, Iranians have been left with little choice but to take up state-backed alternatives, as the authorities tighten internet restrictions for security reasons following months of protests.

Iranians are accustomed to using virtual private networks, or VPNs, to evade restrictions and access prohibited websites or apps, including the US-owned Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

The authorities went as far as imposing total internet blackouts during the protests that erupted after the September death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, following her arrest for an alleged breach of the Islamic republic’s dress code for women.

Connections are back up and running again, and even those who are tech-savvy are being corralled into using the apps approved by the authorities such as Neshan for navigation and Snapp! to hail a car ride.

As many as 89 million people have signed up for Iranian messaging apps including Bale, Ita, Rubika and Soroush, the government says, but not everyone is keen on making the switch.

“The topics that I follow and the friends who I communicate with are not on Iranian platforms,” said Mansour Roghani, a resident in the capital Tehran.

“I use Telegram and WhatsApp and, if my VPN still allows me, I’ll check Instagram,” the former municipality employee said, adding that he has not installed domestic apps as replacements.

At the height of the deadly Amini protests in October, the Iranian government cited security concerns as it moved to restrict internet access and added Instagram and WhatsApp to its long list of blocked applications.

“No one wants to limit the internet and we can have international platforms” if the foreign companies agree to introduce representative offices in Iran, Telecommunications Minister Issa Zarepour said last month.

Meta, the American giant that owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, has said it has no intention of setting up offices in the Islamic republic, which remains under crippling US sanctions.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2023

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