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Iran protests: VPN use soars as citizens seek way around Internet censorship

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It has been seven weeks since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody after being detained by Iran’s morality police for “improperly” wearing a hijab.

To contain fears and prevent information from leaving the country, Iran has imposed already significant restrictions on the internet, including blocking international internet traffic and banning WhatsApp and Instagram.

To get around these restrictions and keep their channels open to each other and the world, Iranians en masse are turning to VPNs or virtual private networks.

Researchers at the website Top10VPN recorded a 3,000% increase in demand for VPNs in the first week of the protests.

“The way we track demand for VPNs is by looking at thousands of different VPN-related search terms across multiple search engines, and we can track changes in these searches over time.

‘A lot has changed’

Euronews traveled to Tehran, Iran’s capital, to speak with young people about the impact these restrictions are having on their daily lives.

Darya Ermagan, a student at the University of Tehran, says he has used 10 VPNs so far.

“After using one VPN for a while, it blocks me and switches to another. I need a VPN program even to download VPN from the Internet. I use Telegram and a proxy system to communicate with my family. ‘ she said.

Niloufer Niazmand said he uses five VPN programs, but only two of them work.

“Iran is excluded from the banking system, so I cannot pay for VPN services from my account. After a few days, the VPN I am using is broken and I have to download a new one. Find a VPN that works is very difficult,” she said.

Heydar Hosseini, who works as a waiter at the café, said the incident affected everyone’s lives.

“A lot of things have changed. The simplest is of course the Internet. I use a VPN every day. In fact, I have 13 VPNs at the moment. Everyone’s phones look like this.” This has become a system, even Google was filtered,” he said.

“There are a lot of free VPNs, but most of them don’t work. You have to try them and they will probably connect. I have a paid account with a VPN app, but it hasn’t worked in the last month.”

How does VPN work?

A VPN is basically a type of software that allows you to hide your IP address (the unique identifier on the Internet that identifies the website you are connecting from).

Using a VPN to connect to the Internet creates an encrypted tunnel between you and a remote server, replacing your IP address in the process.

What this means is that to internet censors trying to block traffic from certain countries, your connection will appear to come from anywhere in the world.

So why are Iranians obligated to download not just one or two VPNs, but sometimes 10 or more different VPNs to access the internet?

Iran is a special case as the country’s internet is highly centralized. Iran’s low reliance on foreign Internet Service Providers (ISPs) makes it fairly easy for government censors to block her VPN traffic.

How Iran Targets VPNs

“States own or partially own most ISPs and can force them to shut down the Internet,” said Migliano.

“What we saw during the protests was how big ISPs [in Iran] International traffic was blocked … very little internet traffic was escaping Iran’s borders, blocking international gateways,” he added.

The government is now planning to criminalize the sale of VPNs and introduce prison sentences for offenders, and has also adopted a number of tactics that explicitly target the use and functionality of software.

“The company has invested in expensive and powerful filtering technology that can identify VPN traffic and block it even if it cannot be decrypted. Functionality is getting harder,” says Migliano.

Still, while the Iranian government has proven particularly effective in implementing internet censorship, it cannot block all VPN traffic all the time due to the inherently messy nature of the internet.

“There is not a single internet kill switch in Iran. It is a patchwork.

“So if your VPN service is constantly changing the domain that your app uses to authenticate, if you’re constantly spawning new servers, your connection will succeed. It will be patchy. It will be unreliable and difficult. But they still work to some extent.”

For more on this story, watch the video in the media player above.

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