New data on Iran’s internet habits, released by a website with close links to the brutal Islamic regime in that country, suggests that the VPN market in the country could be worth as much as US$1 billion.
The information comes from the Eghtesad Online website, which quotes a member of the Iranian Parliament, Mohammad Hassan Asafari, as saying of the VPN market in Iran, “The income and financial turnover of filtering profiteers exceed 500 trillion rials (US$1 billion) per year, and they don’t pay any taxes.”
He went on to ask, “How is it possible that a government capable of blocking [internet services] cannot block these VPNs as well? It seems that merchants exist within certain organizations involved in filtering, and I believe this issue needs to be addressed.”
We’re not sure where to begin on that one, but we do know that the autocratic regimes of China and Russia are among many others to ask the same question, yet so far fail to come up with any answers.
We will leave them to ruminate on it and instead look at some of the other interesting VPN data to emerge from the study.
Iran’s VPN habits
Sticking with VPNs, the report found that 80% of Iranians use a VPN, primarily to access social media sites and instant messaging services.
That is an enormous number. By comparison, the UK figure for this is about a quarter. For just about any other country, we would be praising the government for educating its citizens about online safety, but for Iran, the reason for this extremely high figure is obvious.
According to one cybersecurity expert, Mehdi Moslehi, monthly VPN sales transactions are on the rise too. “Until 2018, the monthly sales transaction of VPNs was 50 billion rials (approximately $4.8 million)”, he said.
“But now, considering the situation last year, this number has reached close to 5 trillion rials (approximately $10 million) per month.”
We note that these numbers are not consistent with those suggested by Mohammad Hassan Asafari, which only serves to emphasise what a lax grip the Iranian regime has on this issue.
It will also come as no surprise to learn that there was a huge spike in VPN usage during the anti-regime protests in Iran towards the end of last year and earlier this year and the brutal crackdown that followed.
Saeed Naghavi, who is a member of the board of directors of the Iranian IT Union, has claimed that there was 3,000% increase in demand for VPNs in October 2022. He noted that “reports show that the search volume of Iranian users for obtaining VPNs has set a historical record.”
Even Iran’s own Ministry of Sports and Youth concurs with this assessment. They noted during the protests that “70 percent of users use VPNs, and out of this number, for every eight people, one person uses a paid VPN.”
Knowing how dangerous free VPNs can be, we would like to see the number of people using a paid-for VPN being much higher, but we do understand that for some people in Iran this is not possible and to them, we would recommend ProtonVPN as the best free option out there.
Iran’s wider internet habits revealed
People are using VPNs in Iran to get around the regime’s extensive online censorship to access blocked social media sites and truthful information about Iran and other countries around the world.
Interestingly, the data on Telegram, which was the first social media site to be blocked in Iran, found that Iranian Telegram channels were viewed more than 590 billion times in 2022. This strongly suggests that the regime’s censorship is not working, and VPNs in Iran clearly are.
As another Iranian MP, Jalal Rashidi Kouchi has noted (ironically on Twitter), “Censorship has not reduced people’s presence on foreign social networks; it has only caused inconvenience and expenses for the people.”
The report stated that the average Iranian spends 169 minutes a day online and that 87% of Iranians use mobile devices to go online. They also found that the total number of domestic and foreign online stores and social networks used by users in Iran in 2022 was more than 780,000.
It also notes the huge economic impact of Iran’s online censorship and frequent shutdowns, noting that the one in 2019, which lasted several weeks, cost the Iranian economy billions.
The country’s perilous economic state means that it can ill afford a repeat, yet the economic crisis is already triggering more protests of the type that tend to lead to shutdowns.
It is a vicious circle and goes a long way to explaining why so many Iranians rely on VPNs to access the internet freely rather than relying on their erratic rulers.
This will, most likely, remain the case moving forward and, unless the regime sees the error of its ways, VPNs will continue to be a vital tool for all Iranian citizens looking to get online.