Iran’s illegalization of VPN – a network case study

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As concern grows over Iran's continued attempts to increase the already high level of Internet censorship, a new infographic, designed to explain the 'food chain' of how the censorship is enforced (and by whom) in the country, has been created by the Iran Media Program and the design studio Hyperakt.  Although you may expect it to be complicated, it's probably even more than you were bargaining for:

It attempts to show the complexity of Iran's Internet governance system by mapping the relationship between the different policy-making and enforcement bodies involved in Internet censorship and filtering.  It spotlights four new bodies – the Supreme Council on Cyberspace, the Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Content, the Cyber Army, and the Cyber Police – that have emerged since 2009 as key institutions responsible for controlling the flow of online communications, both within Iran and between Iranians and the global cyber-sphere.

Pretty impressive right? Let’s have a look at this very interesting example of how political powers can affect companies in setting up networks. (Who said networks had nothing to do with human beings?)

information censorship by a government

Colin Lecher of popsci.com highlights the sheer level of interference and those who ally themselves within Iran to run it, including some government entities, like the Cyber Police, which monitors social networks for anti-Islamic activity, and the Iranian Cyber Army, a coalition of pro-government hackers that launches cyber-attacks against opposition groups. 

Typically, where you find the highest level of censorship (according to a study carried out by the University of Toronto, Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge, Iran is one of the worst offenders when it comes to using state-sponsored software filtering) you will find the highest level of retaliation in the form of netizens doing their best to access exactly the type of information which they are being kept from, and Iran is no different. 

VPNs: a solution?

Colin Lecher suggests that approximately 20 to 30% of Iran's 'net-users are breaking the law by using technology to help them dodge the filtering and access censored information.  One of the biggest weapons in their arsenal was Google Reader, which enabled them to swerve censorship because it runs through Google's own servers which are not located in countries who censor the Internet, but now Google have announced that they will be retiring Google Reader as of July 1st 2013

Unfortunately for those seeking an alternative and perhaps imitating their Chinese counterparts, governments are becoming increasingly aware of the techniques used to bypass Internet censorship, primarily VPNs. Although they are widely available and are not breaking the law in themselves, Ramezanali Sobhani-Fard, a Parliamentarian from Iran's ruling ABII party and the head of parliament's information and communications technology committee, calls the use of VPNs "illegal" for most citizens.

The intention to allow the use of only those VPNs which were registered – in other words, who operate inside Iran and are monitored by the Iranian government – was announced in January by  Mehdi Akhavan Behabadi, secretary of Iran's Supreme Cyberspace Council to Mehr (Iran version of Youtube). They did acknowledge that there can be legitimate security reasons for using VPNs, but that those who have them (such as banks and other financial institutions) should change over to the domestic options.

still some issues?

What this means for the people of Iran in real terms is that they cannot access a number of services, not just certain information.  Skype and Viber, for example, cannot be used, and Facebook is out of the question; Facebook has long been viewed as problematic by Iran, who see it as a “portal of dissent” and have already banned it, but its use has been possible thanks to the VPNs.

However, a source calling himself 'Mohamad', who confirmed the enactment of the blockage of VPNs, has been using another form of software to access Facebook, as have his peers, according to Reuters.  For those unable to sidestep the measures, any attempt to access Facebook (and other banned sites) results in redirection to a page on which they're asked to report illegal use of the Internet.

Access was also cut to some sites which were normally allowed (although only in censored form), such as Google Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. search portals.  Mr. Sobhani-Fard said that the government was investigating this unpleasant side effect of the new censorship rollout.

what about the future?

It would seem that this illegalization of VPNs has created more unrest in an already unhappy country: a presidential election is due this autumn, and this can only add to problems Iranian citizens have amid tough inflation and poverty issues

Interestingly, in an attempt to quash protests in the run-up to the previous 2009 election, the government briefly banned Gmail (Google's email client), but an internal backlash occurred (many politicians in the party used the client themselves) and access was restored. 

The Iranian authorities have also announced plans to switch citizens onto a domestic Internet network which would be largely isolated from the World Wide Web, but it will remain to be seen if the task of moving seventy-five million people onto such an exclusive network is possible, particularly against the backdrop of a nation with existing socioeconomic problems. 

Jean-Loup

photo copyright: © gemphotography - Fotolia.com

Jean Loup Richet

My research interests include cybercrime, internet censorship and information systems security – I have been a speaker at several national and international conferences, and have published articles in academic and trade journals. I am currently member of the Advisory Group of EC3 European Cybercrime Centre at Europol, cybercrime expert and lecturer in cybersecurity in MBA programs at ESSEC and Sorbonne Graduate Business School.