Iranian regime resorts to online censorship as freedom protests grow

VPN on phone with Iran flag

The people of Iran are once again showing their acute displeasure at the theocratic dictators who rule the once great country with an iron fist and have turned from a vibrant and flourishing nation to an international pariah in less than fifty years.

After Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish woman was beaten to death by Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating the regime’s strict hijab rules, people have taken to the streets in large numbers across the country.

Needless to say, the brutal regime has fought back with hundreds of arrests, 31 civilians killed so far, and also reports of several mobile phone network outages.

That is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the online censorship the regime is currently embarking on. OONI (the Open Observatory of Network Interference) which monitors internet censorship has been watching closely and uncovered some deeply troubling details.

Internet Censorship in Iran

OONI has found that as of the 20th of September, the Iranian regime has stepped up its blocking of encrypted DNS (DoH) services.

This is an increase in a different method of online censorship to what they have previously used and indicative of a desire for their online censorship to be both wider and more effective.

Social media has taken a big hit too. Many social media networks were already highly controlled, but OONI has now confirmed that WhatsApp is now blocked across the country. This applies to both the mobile apps and the WhatsApp internet presence too.

On 21st September, the same day as WhatsApp’s block came into full force, Instagram too largely went offline in Iran. Again, this block seems to apply to both the Instagram website and mobile apps.

LinkedIn is a social media network that had largely remained uncensored by Iran up until now. But this has all changed with OONI data showing that it is blocked on no fewer than seven different Iranian networks.

Another online communication tool, albeit one that is less prominent now than it once was, is Skype. OONI reports that as of 23rd September, most Iranian networks also appear to be blocking this too.

VPNs and other circumvention tools targeted

It is not just the social media networks that are feeling the full force of the Iranian regime’s kickback against the freedom protests across the country.

As of the 22nd September, both the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store began to display anomalies with both now considered to be blocked to all intents and purposes by the regime.

It can only be assumed that a key factor in this particular bit of censorship is attempting to stop Iranian people using VPNs and other circumvention tools to get around the regime’s censorship crackdown.

OONI has taken a look at three circumvention tools; Psiphon, Tor and Tor Snowflake.

While Iran has been trying, and largely failing, to block the Tor network for years, it has not so far succeeded and the data from OONI suggests that this remains the case.

Psiphon too also appears to be fully functioning in Iran and, far from seeing a decrease in Iranian users, as would be expected if censorship was having an impact, it has actually put on a significant number of Iranian users throughout September.

As far as we are aware, no VPNs that previously worked inside Iran have reported any problems for their users in the country too, at least at the time of writing.

Blocks to the Google Play Store and Apple App Store will obviously cause a problem for Iranian users looking to sign up for a VPN now. But all decent VPNs have other ways to download their apps and sign up and we would urge Iranian users to explore these, albeit with all due caution given the current climate inside the country.

One problem that could hamper users of VPNs in Iran, as well as those using Psiphon, Tor, and Tor Snowflake, is if the regime decides to cut internet access altogether.

There have been some reports of isolated network outages with some Iranian ISPs which OONI has analysed. These have not lasted for more than a few hours so far and there is no indication yet that a nationwide internet shutdown is planned. But with this regime, you can never rule anything out.

If you are technically-minded and want to learn more about what OONI has uncovered about the current wave of online censorship in Iran, you can read their detailed blog post.

If you are reading this inside Iran, firstly all-power to you as you strive for freedom. But be careful online.

Use a VPN or another of the circumvention tools mentioned at all times, make sure you deploy a kill switch, so you aren’t caught out if the connection drops, and think carefully about what you are doing online and the potential repercussions.

VPNs and other tools can help the internet be a force for good at times like this. But in countries like Iran, the internet can also put people at risk if the right steps to protect your privacy are not taken. So be sure you are using your VPN or other circumvention tools carefully and correctly as you stand up for your freedoms.

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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