Iranian Regime Targets VPNs to Limit Internet Access

Like all his friends, Pouria, a businessman from Tehran who prefers to remain anonymous, has installed twenty VPNs (virtual private network, these “virtual private networks” used to bypass censorship) on his phone since the start of the uprising in Iran on September 16. Date from which global Internet access is cut off almost entirely between 4:00 p.m. and midnight in the country, since most of the protests take place in this time slot.

The rest of the day, the connection remains very disturbed. And the Internet has been completely cut off in the Kurdish regions, where Mahsa Amini was from, whose death, following his arrest by the morality police for an ill-fitting veil, is at the origin of the uprising. But the repression is particularly severe in other places: the province of Sistan-et-Baluchistan (southeast of the country), where, according to the organization Amnesty International, at least 82 people have been killed since September 30, has also experienced a significant internet shutdown.

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Since the 2017 protests, this strategy has been used by the regime during every wave of protests. This is to prevent the circulation of information among the protesters and the dissemination of images outside the country. In 2019, the internet was completely blacked out for almost ten days as Iranians took to the streets following the announcement of rising gasoline prices.

This time, authorities blocked WhatsApp and Instagram apps, the last foreign services still accessible in Iran until recently. The authorities have announced that the blockade will not be lifted. Twitter and Facebook have been banned since 2009, Telegram since the end of 2017.

“Sophisticated technology”

Since mid-September, more and more Iranians have installed VPNs on their mobile phones and computers to access the Internet. Friends and family members regularly call each other to find out which network to use and how to download it. “Every day, I try my twenty VPNs, one after another, to see which one allows me to connect to Telegram. But it is very complicated to send videos, photos and even voice messages. It is even more difficult, if not impossible, to access WhatsApp”Pouria explains.

In recent years, Tehran has accelerated the establishment of the “National Information Network” (RNI) project. Launched in 2012, it aims to give authorities the ability to cut off access to the international Internet, without affecting daily life. That is why, since September 16, sites hosted in Iran – whose content and existence are validated by the Islamic Republic – remain accessible, as do messaging services and applications designed by Iranians and authorized by the regime. But accessing these services can also put their users at risk: their data can end up in the hands of the country’s intelligence services, where anyone can be prosecuted and sentenced to prison for opposing the regime.

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