Iran protests: VPN use on the rise as citizens look for ways around internet censorship

It’s been seven weeks since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in prison after being detained by Iran’s morality police for “improperly wearing” her hijab – an incident that sparked nationwide protests that have since spread around the world.

Iran has tightened already significant restrictions on the Internet, including blocking international internet traffic and banning WhatsApp and Instagram to prevent unrest and prevent information from leaking out of the country.

To circumvent these restrictions and keep channels open to each other and the rest of the world, Iranians are turning to VPNs, or virtual private networks, in droves.

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

“Our VPN demand tracking involves looking at thousands of different VPN-related search terms across multiple search engines. And we can monitor the fluctuations in these searches hour by hour,” Simon Migliano, who manages and leads research at Top10VPN, explained to Euronews Next.

‘A lot has changed’

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

Darya Ermagan, a student at Tehran University, said that she has used 10 VPNs so far.

“After using one VPN for a while, it gets blocked and we switch to another. We need such VPN apps to download VPN from the Internet. I use Telegram and a proxy system to contact my family,” he said.

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

“We can’t pay for VPN services from our accounts because Iran is banned from the banking system. After a few days, the VPNs we use break and we have to download a new one. It’s very hard to find a VPN that works.” he said.

Heydar Huseyni, who works as a waiter in the cafe, said that the events affected everyone’s life.

“A lot has changed. The most basic thing of course is the internet. I use a VPN every day. In fact, I use 13 VPNs right now. Everyone’s phone has one. It’s become a system. Even Google is filtered. Last month, searching for something on Google filtered”.

“There are many free VPNs, but most of them don’t work. You should try and maybe it will join. There are better VPNs, but you have to pay, but they don’t work either. I’ve paid bills with two VPN apps, but they haven’t been working for the past month.”

How do VPNs work?

VPNs are essentially a type of software that allows you to hide your IP address—your unique identifier on the Internet that tells websites where your connection originates from.

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

What this means is that to Internet censors trying to block traffic from a certain country, your connection will appear to be coming from another part of the world.

So why do Iranians have to download not just one or two VPNs, but sometimes more than 10 different VPNs to access the Internet?

Iran is a special case because of the highly centralized nature of the Internet in the country. Because Iran is less dependent on foreign internet service providers (ISPs), it is easier for government censors to block VPN traffic.

How Iran is targeting VPNs

“The state owns or partially owns most of the ISPs, and they can force them to shut down the Internet,” Migliano said.

“What we’ve seen during the protests is the big ISPs in different ways [in Iran] they blocked international traffic… very little internet traffic escaped Iran’s borders, they closed international gateways,” he added.

The government now plans to criminalize the sale of VPNs, impose prison terms for offenders, and use a range of tactics to overtly target the use and functionality of the software.

“It invests in expensive and powerful filtering technology that can block VPN traffic even if it cannot identify and decrypt it. They also block IP addresses and domains managed by VPN providers, making it difficult for them to operate,” Migliano said.

However, while the Iranian government has proven particularly effective at enforcing Internet censorship, it cannot block all VPN traffic all the time due to the Internet’s inherent messiness, Migliano said.

“Iran does not have a single internet kill switch. This is a patchwork. Where there are patches, there are small gaps,” he explained.

“So if the VPN service is constantly changing the domains that its apps use to authenticate, if it’s constantly creating new servers, then connections will fail. It will be patchy. It will be unreliable, it will be difficult. But they will still be active to a certain extent.”

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