How the Islamic Republic has enslaved Iran’s Internet

Iranian journalists have helped Reporters Without Borders (RSF) to shed light on the workings of the Internet censorship machine built by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Arbitrary Internet outages, disabled VPN servers... RSF denounces a system of network enslavement made to reduce access to information to almost nothing.

“The Islamic Republic's strategy is cruel – locking its people into an empty information space and blocking all escape routes,” said Vincent Berthier, the head of RSF’s Tech Desk. “Internet shutdowns form the main barrier to information, and when the network comes back online, the government obstructs access in another way, by preventing access to VPNs. We call on the Iranian authorities to lift these oppressive constraints. Iranians have the right to access news and information freely.”

Ever since the current wave of protests began on 16 September, the Iranian government has used its investments in its national digital network to orchestrate Internet shutdowns and has also increased other forms of censorship. Strategic online services such as Instagram and WhatsApp have been blocked. And the authorities are now targeting Virtual Private Network (VPNs) – apps that provide an encrypted connection to a remote server, protecting the user’s data, anonymising their activity and thereby making it possible to circumvent censorship.

“The government blocks access to free VPNs,” an Iranian journalist told RSF, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There are still VPNs that are not free, but Iranians find it difficult to pay for them because of the sanctions. We need VPNs!” The demand for VPNs has surged by more than 3,000% since the start of the protests, according to the Top10VPN website.

To make it harder for Iranians to use VPNs to circumvent censorship, the first step taken by the authorities was to block the Google Play and Apple App Store apps, which offered them a quick and easy way to install VPNs on their devices. The authorities then created an added difficulty by also blocking the websites of most companies that could provide these apps. And finally, they are deactivating the VPN servers accessible in Iran.

Mobile Internet targeted

More than 60% of Iranian Internet traffic goes through the mobile Internet, which protesters use on the streets to document their protests. 

“The mobile network has been hit harder by the shutdowns than Wi-Fi,” the same journalist said. “The government assumes you’re not in the street if you’re connected to Wi-Fi. The duration of network shutdowns depends on the region. In Tehran, the network may only be cut from mid-afternoon until midnight, but in Iranian Kurdistan, the shutdowns may start in the morning with no prospect of the network returning before midnight.”

Network censorship depends directly on Iranian Internet service providers complying with government decisions. Cloudflare Radar, which monitors global Internet traffic, has identified 

21 network outages’ in Iran due to government decisions since 18 September and names the Internet service providers involved – Irancell, MCI and Rightel – which are three of the country's biggest mobile telecommunications companies. Iranian journalists contacted by RSF say these companies are under the government’s entire sway.

In some regions, Iranians are running out of ways to access online news and information and to communicate with the outside world. The government is constantly finding methods to extend its control over the network. Text messages have also been impacted, with direct consequences for digital telecommunications. The latest method used to block access to the Signal encrypted messaging app is a cruel example.

Although Signal has been banned and blocked in Iran since January 2018, the app’s staff had created alternative ways to connect. Nonetheless, a phone number is needed to set up a Signal account and, at the moment of setting it up, a text must be sent to the user’s phone to verify the number. These texts are being blocked by the Iranian network, thereby preventing the Signal account’s creation from being completed.

Meredith Whittaker, the president of the Signal Foundation, which is responsible for maintaining and developing the app, told RSF that the blocking is “happening at the level of the telecommunications infrastructure, which we don't control.” This is an issue “for which there isn't fix we can implement,” she said.

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Updated on 05.10.2022