The hard-line Islamic regime which controls Iran has responded to widespread public protests by cutting off internet access across much of the country. But the Iranian people are fighting back with many turning to VPNs and the Tor network to stay online, organise, and share news of what is happening to the outside world.
Protests and censorship in Iran
Protests started on December 29th, initially against the rising cost of living and widespread state corruption across Iran. Just a day later, on December 30th, reports began to emerge that the regime had begun blocking internet access in an effort to quell protests.
Multiple reports claimed that mobile access to the internet was being blocked, with access to sites such as Instagram and the encrypted messenger Telegram especially targeted. There are also reports of many other internet connections being unable to access overseas content.
If there are any question mark about why these services are being blocked now, Telegram has been open and transparent about the reasons why they are offline. According to the founder of Telegram, Pavel Durov, their service has been blocked because of “our public refusal to shut down discussions regarding peaceful protests.”
He went on to say, “We are proud that Telegram is used by thousands of massive opposition channels all over the world. We consider freedom of speech an undeniable human right, and would rather get blocked in a country by its authorities than limit peaceful expression of alternative opinions.”
Iran’s long history of internet censorship
Online censorship in Iran is nothing new. Social media and instant messenger services have long been targeted by the regime while there have also been widespread efforts to block content deemed immoral under the regimes strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Efforts have also been underway to introduce a domestic internet to give the regime complete control over what people in Iran can and cannot access and do online. This is despite promises by the current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that internet access will be opened up and sped up across the country.
As a result, many Iranians have taken to using VPNs, the Tor network, or even creating their own apps to access the internet without impediment. In recent days there has been a significant spike in numbers using such tools.
While data on VPN usage in Iran in recent days is not yet available, the Tor Network has reported a spike in the number of connections to their network from within Iran.
As Dr Steven Murdoch, a researcher at UCL and a contributor to the Tor Project, told Sky News, “Tor is one example of a technology that allows its users to browse web pages that would otherwise be blocked. Virtual Private Networks (VPN) are another approach to bypass blocking.”
Google under pressure to open up its services in Iran
Another method that protestors could use to get around blocks is services such as Signal. Signal is an encrypted instant messenger which protects users by hiding its service amongst Google services. However, Google blocks Iranian’s from using many of its services because of fears that nuclear scientists could make use of them and so leave them in breach of international sanctions.
The service in question is known as Google App Engine (GAE) and there have been mounting calls for Google to either unblock the service in Iran or whitelist Signal and other services which use the same technique, including the Tor Network.
As Collin Anderson, a researcher on Internet infrastructure and expert on Iran, told Sky News, “Google could whitelist (allow) Signal and Tor, and incur basically no sanctions liabilities. And civil society has been writing and meeting with Google about GAE since 2013.”
Others, including Edward Snowden, have joined his calls, but at the time of writing there has been no formal response from Google to the request.
Protests continue in Iran despite the regimes attempts to shut them down. There are numerous reports of protestors being gunned down by the country’s Revolutionary Guard and internet restrictions remain in place.
And while the free world prays that the protestors can prevail, and freedom can return once more to Iran, the VPN community and the wider internet community continue to make every effort to facilitate the freedom of expression and free internet access that the regime is trying to deny the Iranian people.