The Iranian government has announced in a report that of the 23.5 million youth using the web in the country, 69.3 percent of them are relying on circumvention tools such as VPNs and proxies that provide access to the global web.
The study has been publicized just a day after President Hassan Rouhani said existing Internet censorship in the country was not working.
“69.3 percent use proxies (servers in other countries) to circumvent censorship and go on the Internet,” stated head of the research center, Mohammad Taghi Hassanzadeh, according to ISNA news agency.
Currently, Iranians often face a firewall when trying to access websites that appear counter-productive towards the government’s Islamic ideals. The report does not mention the legal side of circumvention tools.
But the list of Computer Crimes in Iran show the distribution of circumvention tools and the instructions to use them are illegal, and violating the law could result in severe punishment.
Iran has a notorious policy of filtering online content, which leaves sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter inaccessible without using prohibited software, as listed in the Computer Crimes list, capable of making a Virtual Private Network (VPN) across a regular Internet connection.
Filtering advocates in Iran are of the opinion that it protects citizens from immoral content, such as pornographic websites, but opponents say VPNs breaks down restrictions, which they think are pointless.
President Hassan Rouhani, who cited educational and science as a use for few Internet restrictions, underwent an edgy debate on censorship recently, stating the current regulations are not working.
“Force does not produce results,” he said in a speech. “Some people think we can fix these problems by building walls, but when you create filters, they create proxies.”
The decision of the government to approve faster 3G mobile Internet licenses for two Iranian companies in the previous month was considered the first step towards providing easier Internet access.
Along with its filtering policy, Iranian authorities are also accused of deliberately slowing the Internet, which makes gaining access to even legally-sanctioned websites difficult. The 3G permit granting caused controversy with some of the country’s conservative officials who said video call functions on tablets and smartphones could open youngsters to dubious content.
The ministry of telecommunications, technology and information later said that video calling would not be available, despite services like Skype and FaceTime being accessible on normal Internet connections.
But with the easy access to circumvention tools, how serious a problem is censorship in Iran?
Although blocked sites are a big part of the government’s anti-censorship strategy, there are several other policies tacitly limiting Internet access. For example, the government mandated a bandwidth count in 2006 unless someone provide documentation that the Internet was being used for professional purposes.
Moreover, the requirement for circumvention tools, as well as the burden to provide faster Internet speeds, is creating a digital divide between rural and urban, and rich and poor populations. If someone has access to a fancy university or office, chances are that individual’s access to the Internet is going to be much faster than the average Iranian.
While some argue that Rouhani’s Internet policy is one of the rare areas where there have been recent improvements in the overall Internet infrastructure, such reports perpetuate an overall feeling of uncertainty among open Internet advocates in the country.
We’ve previously covered the best VPNs in Iran but we would like to hear from people living in Iran. What is your favorite tools to circumvent online censorship in Iran? Use the comment box below to share your knowledge.