Internet censorship in Iran

Talk about Internet censorship in Iran at 32C3 by Mahsa Alimardani

In the first few years of the 21st century, Iran experienced a great surge in Internet usage. As of 2018, Iran has an estimate Internet penetration rate of between 64% to 69% out of a population of about 82 million.[1][2]

As of 2012, an average of 27% of Internet sites were blocked at a given time[3] and as of 2013 almost 50% of the top 500 visited websites worldwide were blocked, including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Blogger.[4] The Iranian government and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Sepah are interested to block all social media. The blocked sites have a wide range of topics including health, science, sports, news, pornography and shopping.[5]

The business of selling virtual private networks (VPNs), SOCKS, and proxy servers in Iran is worth millions of U.S. dollars due to the large demand.[6] The twelfth minister of Iran Communication State announced that the lucrative business of selling VPNs and proxies has had huge profits for it manufacturers and retailers, and there are efforts to stop some of the businesses.[6]

At the beginning of March 2012, Iran began implementing an internal intranet. This effort is partially in response to Western actions to exploit its Internet connectivity, such as the Stuxnet cyberattack, which have fueled suspicions of foreign technologies.[7]

The government's and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Sepah response has included requiring the use of Iranian email systems, blocking popular webmail services, inhibiting encryption use by disabling VPNs and HTTPS, and banning externally developed security software.[8]

Iran is one of the countries most strongly identified with internet censorship.[9][10] Beginning on November 17, 2019,[11] in response to the 2019 Iranian fuel protests, an internet shutdown reduced internet traffic in the country to 5% of normal levels.[12][13][14] The internet is now being gradually reactivated in some areas.[15][16]


When first introduced, the Internet services provided by the government within Iran were comparatively open. Many users saw the Internet as an easy way to get around Iran's strict press laws.[17][18] Internet censorship increased with the administration of conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Regime opponents in Iran are said to rely heavily on Web-based communication with the outside world.

Many bloggers, online activists, and technical staff have faced jail terms, harassment and abuse.[19][20] In 2006 and again in 2010, the activist group Reporters Without Borders labeled Iran one of the 12 or 13 countries it designated "Enemies of the Internet".[21][22] Reporters Without the Borders sent a letter to UN high Commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay to share its deep concern and ask for her intervention in the case of two netizens/free speech defenders, Vahid Asghari and Hossein Derakhshan. One of major accusation of Vahid Asghari was creating a national plan against censorship by the government.[23][24][25]

In preparation for the March 2012 elections, the Iran government instituted strict rules on cybercafes and is preparing to launch a national Internet.[26] It also requires all Iranians to register their web sites with the Ministry of art and culture.[27]

At the beginning of March 2012, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader told Iranian authorities to set up a body to oversee the Internet. The body which is called The Supreme Council of Virtual Space will consist of the president, culture and information minister, the police and Revolutionary Guard chiefs. Their task will be to define policy and co-ordinate decisions regarding the Internet. This is thought to be the country's authorities strongest attempt at controlling the Internet so far.[28]

Internet service providersEdit

Every ISP must be approved by both the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and must implement content-control software for websites and e-mail. ISPs face heavy penalties if they do not comply with the government filter lists. At least twelve ISPs have been shut down for failing to install adequate filters.[29] The state blocklist consists of about 15,000 websites forbidden by the Iranian government.[18] In 2008, Iran has blocked access to more than five million Internet sites, whose content is mostly perceived as immoral and anti-social.


The primary engine of Iran's censorship is the content-control software SmartFilter, developed by San Jose firm Secure Computing.[30] However, Secure denies ever having sold the software to Iran, and alleges that Iran is illegally using the software without a license.[31]

As of 2006, Iran's SmartFilter is configured to filter local Persian-language sites, and block prominent English-language sites, such as the websites of the BBC and Facebook.[32]

The software effectively blocks access to most pornographic sites, gay and lesbian sites, reformist political sites, news media, sites that provide tools to help users cloak their Internet identity, and other sites nebulously defined as immoral on various grounds. Iran has been accused by its critics of censoring more Internet sites than any other nation except China.[21]

Iran has since developed its own hardware and software for filtering purposes. The architecture of the Iranian Internet is particularly conducive to widespread surveillance as all traffic from the dozens of ISPs serving households is routed through the state-controlled telecommunications infrastructure of the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI).[33]

The Kurdish Wikipedia was blocked for several months in 2006, according to Reporters Without Borders.[34]

American proxy serverEdit

Iranians can sometimes access 'forbidden' sites through proxy servers, although these machines can be blocked as well. In 2003, the United States began providing a free proxy server to Iranian citizens through its IBB service Voice of America with Internet privacy company Anonymizer, Inc. The proxy website changes whenever the Iranian government blocks it.[35]

However, even the U.S. proxy filters pornographic websites and keywords. "There's a limit to what taxpayers should pay for," an IBB program manager was quoted as saying.[35] The forbidden keywords are controversial—banning "gay" effectively bars access to a host of gay and lesbian sites—and have had unintended consequences. The banning of "ass", for example, blocks access to the website of the United States Embassy.[36] [37]

Following the 2009 Iranian presidential election, the U.S. Senate ratified a plan to help curb "censorship in the Islamic Republic". The legislation dubbed the Victims of Iranian Censorship Act (VOICE) allocated $50 million to fund measures "to counter Iranian government efforts to jam radio, satellite, and Internet-based transmissions."[38]

Deep packet inspectionEdit

The possibility that Nokia Siemens Systems sold, in 2008, TCI a deep packet inspection countrywide capacity for monitoring or even altering content of Internet voice and mail communication was raised in a Wall Street Journal report in June, 2009.[39] The company has denied that what it sold to TCI had such capacity but only lawful intercept capacity relative to child pornography e.g.;[40]

Andrew Lighten, a NSN employee, however, states[41] that the company does not have products for Deep Packet Inspection, and only provided Iran lawful interception capability for 3G UMTS mobile networks, which he states, is a fundamental requirement of the UMTS network as defined by the ETSI standards.

Iran is reported to use deep packet inspection to detect connections to TLS-based VPNs, and TCP reset attacks to interfere with them.[42]

Internet connection speed restrictionsEdit

Iranian government uses speed throttling as a means of frustrating users and limiting communication. Significant speed drop of Internet communications in the days following the 2009 Iranian presidential election, weeks leading to 2013 election, and during times of international political upheaval, including during the Arab Spring are examples of such behavior.[5]

In October 2006, the Iranian government ordered all ISPs to limit their download speeds to 128kbit/s for all residential clients and Internet cafes. Although no reason for the decree was given, it is widely believed the move was designed to reduce the amount of western media (e.g. films and music) entering the country.[43] There is also a newfound state awareness of how domestically produced content considered undesirable can pervade the Internet, highlighted by the 2006 controversy over the appearance of a celebrity sex tape featuring a popular Iranian soap opera actress (or a convincing look-alike).[21] (See the Iranian sex tape scandal)

As of 2010, most major ISPs in Tehran offer 1 Mbit/s for 2,190,000 rials/month (around 60 dollars/month), 2Mbit/s for 3,950,000 rials/month (around 115 dollars/month) for unlimited data traffic. 1 Mbit/s with 2 GB traffic limitation costs 189,000 rials/month (around 9 dollars/month). Note these prices are just for Tehran. Prices are usually higher in other cities. Restriction for the residential client speed of 128kbit/s is still in place and the speeds mentioned above are just for offices and commercial firms. [44]

However, the situation got better in the years afterward, and as of Oct. 2019 a major ISP provided 40Mbit/s Internet with 100GB of data per month, only for 850,000 IRR (about 8 USD). Others provide unlimited data traffic plans with up to 16Mb/s speed, just for 260,000 IRR/month (about 2.25 USD)


According to the American newspaper The Washington Times, Iran is using lawful intercept capabilities of telecommunications system to monitor communications by political dissidents on the Internet. A "monitoring center" installed by Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) for Irantelecom intercepts Web-based communications and archives them for Iranian law enforcement officials. Lily Mazahery, a human rights and immigration lawyer who represents Iranian dissidents, reported that one of her clients was arrested because of instant messaging he had participated in with Ms. Mazahery,

He told me he had received a call from the Ministry of Intelligence, and this guy when he went to the interrogation, they put in front of him printed copies of his chats with me. He said he was dumbfounded, and he was sent to prison.[45]

According to a newly passed legislation, Internet Service Providers (ISP) in Iran are required to store all the data sent or received by each of their clients. ISPs may delete the data no sooner than 3 months after the expiry of each client's contract.[46]

Out of country protests following the 2009 elections resulted in Iran increasing their monitoring of online social networks, especially targeting Facebook. Upon re-entry to the country, citizens that have lived abroad have been questioned and detained due to the contents of their personal Facebook pages.[47]

Post 2009-election developmentsEdit

Following the 2009 election protests, Iran ratified the Computer Crimes Law (CCL) by 2010.[48] The CCL codified into law regulations for Internet censorship. Notable provisions of the CCL include: Article 10 which effectively prohibits Internet users and companies from using encryption, or protecting data, in a manner that would “deny access of authorised individuals to data, computer and telecommunication systems”; Article 14 which criminalises “producing, sending, publishing, distributing, saving or financially engaging in obscene content”; Article 21 which imposes a sweeping requirement for ISPs to maintain records of Internet traffic data and the personal information of their Internet users; and Article 48 that requires Internet Service Providers to record data from telephone conversations over the internet.[49]

In April 2011, a senior official, Ali Agha-Mohammadi announced government plans to launch a "halal internet",[50] which would conform to Islamic values and provide "appropriate" services.[26] Creating such a network, similar to one used by North Korea, would prevent unwanted information from outside of Iran getting into the closed system. Myanmar and Cuba use similar systems.[51]

As of early 2012, Iran's ministry of information and communication technology was reportedly testing a countrywide "national Internet" network it is planning to launch aimed at substituting services run through the World Wide Web.[26] The government is also working on "software robots to analyse exchanging emails and chats", in order to find more "effective ways of controlling user's online activities." One Iranian IT expert source defended the program as aimed not "primarily" at curbing the global Internet, but at securing Iran's military, banking and sensitive data from outside cyber-attacks such as Stuxnet.[26]

In addition, by late January 2012, Internet cafe owners are required to check the identity cards of their customers before providing services. According to the news website Tabnak, an Iranian police statement states:

Internet cafes are required to write down the forename, surname, name of the father, national identification number, postcode and telephone number of each customer. Besides the personal information, they must maintain other information of the customer such as the date and the time of using the Internet and the IP address, and the addresses of the websites visited. They should keep these informations for each individuals for at least six months.[26]

In May 2012 Iran criticized Google for dropping the name "Persian Gulf" from its maps, leaving the feature unlabelled. Six days after Khamenei's statement, Iran announced that Google and Gmail would be added to the list of banned sites, to be replaced by a domestic Internet network largely isolated from the World Wide Web. Iranian media reported that the new system would be ready by March 2013.[52] The new network already hosts some government and academic sites.[53]

The isolation of the separate network was also touted as an improvement to network security, in the wake of the Stuxnet worm attack on Iranian's main uranium enrichment facility. A computer virus was also found in Iran's major Kharg Island oil export terminal in April. Communications and Technology Minister Reza Taqipour said, "Control over the Internet should not be in the hands of one or two countries. Especially on major issues and during crises, one cannot trust this network at all."[52]

In September 2012 Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on Western leaders to censor the film trailer for Innocence of Muslims, which was posted to YouTube, a Google affiliate. Khamenei alluded to bans on Nazi-related or anti-gay sites in some countries, asking "How there is no room for freedom of expression in these cases, but insulting Islam and its sanctities is free?".[54]

As of mid-2014, the government of President Hassan Rouhani is seeking to ease Internet restrictions in the country, with Ali Jannati, the culture minister, likening the restrictions to the ban on fax machines, video recorders and video tapes that was implemented following the 1979 revolution.[55] In December 2016, Iranian Prosecutor Ahmad Ali Montazeri, who heads Iran's Internet censorship Committee banned and closed 14,000 websites and social networking accounts in Iran.[56] He underlined that President Rouhani and the Interior Minister Rahmani Fazli agree with him and have addressed "serious warnings" on this issue.[56]

Blocking in 2017–18 protestsEdit

During the 2017–18 Iranian protests, the Iranian government blocked Internet access from mobile networks and blocked access to Instagram and the messaging mobile app Telegram in an effort to stymie protests. At some points, the government completely blocked Internet access in parts of the country.[57][58] A January 2018 report by four special rapporteurs of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed deep concern about the blocking and stated: "Communication blackouts constitute a serious violation of fundamental rights."[58]

United States sanctions on Iran and Internet censorshipEdit

American technology companies block their services inside Iran in efforts to over comply with United States sanctions which outlaw financial transactions with Iran. In August 2019, access to free services on Github, Gitlab, as well as Amazon Cloud services were suspended for users inside Iran.[59][60] The Amazon Cloud suspension has had particularly severe collateral impacts, as Amazon Cloud hosts the majority of circumvention tools needed to bypass the government filters restricting access to online content.[61] This development has forced developers working inside Iran to use unsafe hosting tools, leaving their websites vulnerable to cyberattack and risking users’ security.[61]

In December 2018, the platform Slack temporarily suspended access to its services for all users who had ever connected to the platform from Iranian IP addresses. Slack reinstated those accounts under public pressure, while continuing to suspend its services to users connecting directly from Iran.[62]  

Since March 2018, Apple has made the App Store unavailable in Iran,[63] with significant impacts on the ability of people in the country to communicate online. The blocking of Telegram in April 2018 resulted in collateral blocking of WhatsApp and the disabling of many VPNs. Users inside Iran using Apple devices were unable to access the App Store through their usual proxies, and were unable to download new VPNs or communication apps.

The suspension of communications services and platforms inside Iran continue despite the existence of a General License D-1—first issued by the Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC) in 2014—which authorizes private companies to provide certain “personal communications” technologies to users in Iran.[64] When sanctions were reimposed by the United States, the US Treasury Department highlighted that General License D-1 would apply, in the interests of "fostering Internet freedom and supporting the Iranian people."[65]

2019 total Internet shutdownEdit

In November 2019, Iranian government imposed a week-long total internet shutdown in a response to fuel protests. The blackout was organized by SNSC and MICT.[66][67] It was the most wide-scale internet shutdown ever in Iran.[68]

See alsoEdit


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External linksEdit