How Iran’s VPN plans would create a two-tier internet

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Earlier this month, we reported on Plans from the Iranian regime to permit legal VPNs to operate in the country.

At the time we warned that these VPNs were likely to be little more than a tool to help state surveillance and censorship, much as we have seen in Communist China and some other authoritarian countries.

But now further details have emerged showing that the plan is actually much more sinister than that.

VPN discrimination

The revelations have come to light in an interview given by Hamid Fattahi, the CEO of Iran’s government-owned Telecommunications Infrastructure Company (TIC) to the Mehr News Agency.

Fattahi said in the interview, “The project’s objective is to provide unfiltered Internet access to different categories of people who need it on the basis of their professional and social circumstances.”

He cited examples such as academics, doctors, and journalists who have a specific need to access the internet as part of their job. The implication was that a state-back VPN would create a discriminatory internet policy whereby the level of free access you are given is determined by your profession.

In other words, ordinary Iranian citizens would continue to have a hugely restricted level of internet access, while those in certain professions (and presumably those the regime approves of) would face fewer restrictions.

Human rights infringement

The plan as it stands would be a gross violation of Iranian internet users fundamental rights in a number of ways.

Firstly, this type of discrimination would be an infringement of net neutrality principles by determining the level of internet access you receive on the basis of your job.

Secondly, even those in the chose professions would not enjoy unrestricted access to the internet. A lot of content would remain blocked even for them and it is safe to assume that the Iranian regime will still use this ‘VPN app’ as a surveillance tool to monitor what they are doing online.

Users would have to log into the app to enjoy their additional privileges which means the state would know exactly what each of these individuals was doing online without having to use any underhand tactics to find out.

This is something that the Iranian regime has previously ruled out happening when Abolhassan Firouzabadi, the country’s Supreme Cyber Council’s (SCC) secretary discussed the plans back in 2017.

The new plans appear to have swept all of these assurances aside. Iran is now unashamedly developing a surveillance and monitoring tool which it will force on its citizens under the auspices of a VPN.

This is not a VPN

Let’s be absolutely clear, what the Iranian regime is planning is not a VPN by any definition of the term.

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a tool that empowers users to keep their online activity secure and private.

It encrypts all of their online activity to stop regimes like the one in Iran seeing what its citizens are doing online. It does not act as a monitoring tool.

It also masks users IP Address to enable them to use the internet anonymously. It does not force them to use their personal detail to log in and then keep a record of everything they do online.

What the Iranian regime is developing should more accurately be described as state-sponsored spyware. It is a piece of software that will watch everything you do online and ensure you face the consequences if you break the Iranian regime’s absurdly strict laws.

By calling this development a VPN, Iran is tarnishing the image of all VPNs. This is completely unfair and VPN users in Iran and elsewhere should not be fooled.

Use a real VPN in Iran

If people in Iran really want to enjoy all the benefits of a VPN; online security, privacy, and uncensored internet access; they need to be using a real VPN.

Lots of people in Iran already do use VPNs, despite the regimes best efforts to outlaw them. Premium VPNs are committed to providing individual internet users with the tools they need to bypass authoritarian controls and access what they want to see online.

No state-sponsored VPN will ever offer the same level of security and privacy as a private VPN. It is not in their interests to do so and it is not their purpose.

The need to use a VPN in Iran is now more pressing than ever. It has been reported that access to the Google Play and Apple App stores is now being blocked in Iran. This leaves millions of Iran’s with potentially insecure devices and no means to download any apps that aren’t pre-approved by the state.

It is still possible to download the apps of certain VPNs in Iran but you will need to go through their mirror sites to do so. It is well worth the effort though because online freedoms in Iran are set to get an awful lot worse before they get better.

Author: David Spencer

Cyber-security & Technology Reporter, David, monitors everything going on in the privacy world. Fighting for a less restricted internet as a member of the VPNCompare team for over 7 years.

Away from writing, he enjoys reading and politics. He is currently learning Mandarin too... slowly.

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