Iran censorship regime blocks porn as far away as Hong Kong

Sky block porn

Iran’s regime of internet censorship has long been blocking pornographic content in the Islamic state, but in recent days it seems their system has been rather overreaching itself.

As we have reported previously, Iran is currently rolling out what it describes as a “domestic internet” system, which will allow the regime there to control precisely what can and cannot be accessed within the country. And one type of content which is definitely out is anything pornographic. But it seems to have also been affecting sites outside Iran as well.

Phony Routes

According to a report from ‘The Verge’, 256 pornographic sites found themselves being blocked across a wide geographic area. Users trying to access these sites in countries as far away as Hong Kong and Russia were faced with blank pages and no explanation for what the problem was.

The problem stemmed from the introduction by the Iranian state telecoms company of phony routes for each of the sites affected. These phony routes appear to ISPs to be shortcuts enabling them to access the sites in question quickly. And it seems this appealed to a number of major ISPs outside Iran.

Amongst the ISPs which fell victim to the Iranian censorship were India’s Bharti Airtel, Russia’s RETN, Indonesia’s Telekomunikasi and Hong Kong’s Hutchison. Because it was only a small number of sites being affected, their systems would not have identified a problem, but instead assumed that the site was down. This is why the problem was not picked up on for so long.

Border Gateway Protocol Hijacking

The technical term for this type of activity is Border Gateway Protocol Hijacking. It plays on a flaw in the core design of the internet which allows any network to create routes to an IP Address.

This makes it very easy for fake routes to be dropped into the system, which seems to be what has taken place in this instance. There is certainly no system in place to check and remove bad routes.

It is not the first time incidents of this nature have taken place. Back in 2008, Pakistan managed to block YouTube for a while entirely by accident using the same technique.

Regional Data Transit

As well as affecting the personal entertainment habits of some internet users, the problem has also highlighted an unintended consequence national online censorship can cause.

Iran’s geographic location makes it an important site for the transit of online data. As Doug Madory of Dyn told the Verge, Oman is a particularly significant example of the problem other countries face as a result of Iran’s censorship regime.

“[Iran’s] TIC transits over 4000 routes and announces about a tenth of those to Omantel (Oman’s national telecoms provider),” he explained. “It [therefore] isn’t reasonable for someone at Omantel to check each new route.”

Other countries within the Middle East, and beyond are seemingly affected to a similar extent.

Deliberate or accidental?

Some experts have questioned whether this was a deliberate attempt to block the affected porn sites in Iran, or a mistake. Certainly, Border Gateway Protocol Hijacking is not a typical approach favoured by the regime there, not least because it is very inefficient.

Iran has, of course, not commented, so it is likely that the mystery will never be solved. But the fact that the routes are still active within Iran does hint that, even if it was an accident, it was a welcome one.

Censorship within Iran will continue, as will VPN use by those looking to evade it. But for those living in countries around Iran, it can only be hoped that they can keep their domestic internet censorship regime, domestic.