These Websites Are Illegal to Surf When You're in Iran

article by Sarah T. author
Iran is known for imposing strict social and cultural rules onto citizens, and its web space is no different. As protests sweep the nation, we investigate the realities of internet censorship in Iran - including a workaround to bypass the blocks!

The internet in Iran is a contentious issue. Known for strict censorship and harsh punishments, web activity has often been at the heart of the country’s controversies. The recent protests, which swept through Iran during Dec 2017 and Jan 2018, had internet blacklisting as a central issue. As the regime responded by blocking access to more platforms – including Instagram and Telegram – officials from the UN Human Rights Commission urged for an end to the blocks.

However, the internet was not always so restricted. Initially, many saw the digital world as an opportunity to bypass the government’s hold on the national narrative. Fast forward to 2013, and almost 50% of the 500 most popular global websites are blocked, internal E-mail has been implanted, and encryption technology is now banned completely.

It’s not just the restrictions that have ramped up over the years either. The authorities fear of Western influence is so high that even minor infractions can be harshly punished. In 2014, a group of young adults made a video dancing to Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy.’ The content was not explicit in nature, yet the participants received a year-long prison sentence, alongside 91 lashes – a pretty severe response to merely dancing with your friends.

Unfortunately, this final point perfectly exemplifies the politic regimes outlook on web content.

If the Government Doesn’t Like It – It’s Blocked

Once internet censorship was imposed in Iran, there was no limit to its scope. Countless types of online domains fell prey to the blacklist, for a plethora of reasons. Some of the most common motives include:

  • Religious. The country’s strict theocratic regime dictates a significant amount of what is considered ‘immoral’ online content. Any sites that don’t promote Islamic rhetoric fall under blocks.
  • Political. In a country where religion and politics are an intertwined thread, secular news and ideas are actively shunned. No Western media get past the censors.
  • Social. Social media has played a large role in creating platforms for greater perspectives and empathy. The unrestricted content in your feed could pose a threat to national ideals, so most social networks are banned.

Today, over 5 million sites fall into these categories, and Iran’s web is more closed than ever.  Popular sites not available in Iran include:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • YouTube
  • Blogspot
  • WordPress
  • Skype
  • Western News Outlets (e.g., Yahoo News, CNN, BBC)
  • Porn websites
  • PayPal & Western Union

Alongside blacklisting sites, new censorship tactics have been invoked to keep up with the ever-changing cyber landscape. Another implicated block is the use of keyword filtering: the practice of censoring sites and search results surrounding a particular word. Unfortunately, this results in whole domains facing the blacklist, for a single infraction. For example, a wellbeing site may be blocked entirely, simply because it has a section on sexual health.

Similarly, as the government’s fears of encrypted data continue to evolve, we’ve also seen a rise in protocol-specific throttling. All HTTPS hosted sites are now automatically banned, and attempts have been made to wipe-out proxy software – which is already illegal but scarcely enforced.

And the Speed Will Suck Too

Blocks are not the only barrier to a free internet in Iran. Other more covert tactics are also in force. Speed is a major factor in online experience. Most large web corporations build complex, interactive sites, which require fast connections for easy viewing. Similarly, downloading and streaming are rendered impossible with sluggish web speeds.

In 2017, the average internet speed in the USA was around 20 Mbps. Comparatively, Iran was granted as little as 128 kbps. Office blocks and commercial centers in the country fair slightly better, receiving 1 to 2Mbps.

Cyber expert, Colin Anderson, has been collecting online data from Iran since 2010. He noted that, during periods of unrest, significant throttling occurs on the network. For example, the house arrest of opposition candidates in 2011-2012 resulted in a drop in download speed of 77%. The reactionary protests that occurred later that year saw a similar pattern – a decline of 69%.

Iran is currently devising their own intranet, mimicking North Korea’s strategy for online censorship. Currently, all sites on this internal network are faster than regular domains.

The government blames ISPs for this discrepancy in speed, but endless claims suggest the authorities themselves are responsible for the lag. Since internet providers have long been under the jurisdiction of the regime, the latter seems more than likely.

Critics have also noted that speed throttling is an infinitely preferential form of censorship, as no explicit evidence confirms the government as the enforcer, reducing backlash and international criticism.

The ISPs Must Comply In Order to Operate

Compared to some highly-censored countries, Iran host a wide variety of Internet Service Providers. However, these ISPs face just as many restrictions as web users. To function at all, they must implicate content control filters, and comply with a list of 15,000 sites that must be blocked. Similarly, it’s their responsibility to penalize those using proxy services.  Companies that fail to provide this bottom line are quickly fined or shut down completely.

However, these restrictions aren’t the only examples of government interference. In 2009, the country introduced its first official data retention laws, requiring ISPs to store all ingoing and outgoing data for three months. When warranted, officials can withdraw this information and use it for prosecution – a practice that has led to the arrests of many bloggers, writers, and protesters.

ISPs are also responsible for implementing bandwidth limitations. The Fair Internet Usage policy declares they must be explicit about caps for different internet speeds.

To reduce the risk of dissent by service providers, the requirements for hiring ISP personnel are also strict. Applicants must meet the following criteria to work as an official for these companies:

  • Native to Iran
  • An active follower of Islam
  • Over 25 years old
  • University Graduate
  • No ‘immoral’ reputation
  • No criminal convictions
  • No allegiance to revolutionary groups.

With the very real threat of foreclosure, ISPs generally comply with these rules.

Are There Ways Around These Restrictions?

Fortunately, it is still possible for Iranian residents to enjoy a free and open internet. The use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) within the country has long been popular for this exact reason. A VPN works by diverting your traffic via an international server, before connecting to the web. The benefits of this are two-fold: it assigns the user a new IP address while also encrypting the initial connection. This process makes users anonymous and keeps their data private. It also allows them to view the internet as if they were in the same region as the secondary server.

If you want to set up a VPN to restore your access to Instagram, for example, then it’s easy to achieve. Simply follow these steps:

  • Choose a top-quality VPN provider that has been vetted for use in Iran.
  • Visit their website and create an account.
  • Choose a price plan and download the VPN client
  • Install VPN using onscreen instructions.
  • Configure your VPN by choosing a US-based server
  • Click connect
  • Open the Instagram app and enjoy unrestricted access.

As previously mentioned, the Iranian government are now focusing extra effort on proxy services like VPNs. The law around virtual networks is still somewhat unclear. They aren’t explicitly banned, but you have to report their installation to the government – which pretty much voids their benefit. It is still possible to use a VPN in Iran, although we recommend taking some extra precautions if you can.

  • Purchase the VPN when overseas or using alternative proxy software to avoid causing red flags before you’re protected.
  • Implicate contingency features – such as a kill switch and auto-connect – so your internet never runs without the VPN protection.
  • Choose a provider that offers multiple protocols, as port blocking has become an increasingly common way to identify VPN traffic.
  • Finding a trusted, well-reviewed VPN client that offers comprehensive customer service to help you stay safe.

Use a VPN to Bypass Strict Content Blocks in Iran

Reporters Without Borders has labeled Iran as an ‘Enemy of the Internet’ in their annual list since its conception in 2006. The country’s blacklist is long and their sustained efforts to control the press is a clear violation of human rights.

Fortunately, the ever-adept internet community quickly found a way to bypass these unfair restrictions. Today, all Iranian citizens need to enjoy a free and open net is a good-quality VPN client. With this software, you can access international content and stay safe from network surveillance.