Iranian regime targets VPNs to restrict internet access

Like all his friends, Pouria, an entrepreneur from Tehran who prefers to remain anonymous, has installed twenty VPNs (virtual private network, these “virtual private networks” are used to bypass censorship) on his phone since the start of the uprising in Iran on September 16. The date from which access to the global internet is almost entirely cut off between 4pm and midnight in the country, as most protests occur during this time period.

The rest of the day the connection remains very uneasy. And the internet has been completely cut off in the Kurdish regions, where Mahsa Amini was from, whose death, after being arrested by the morality police for an inappropriate veil, is at the origin of the uprising. But the crackdown is particularly severe elsewhere: the province of Sistan-et-Baluchistan (in the south-east of the country), where, according to Amnesty International, at least 82 people have been killed since September 30, has also experienced a major blow . shutting down the internet.

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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 between demonstrators and the distribution of images abroad. In 2019, the internet was completely shut down for nearly ten days when Iranians took to the streets following the announcement of a gasoline price hike.

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

“Sophisticated technology”

Since mid-September, more and more Iranians have installed VPNs on their cellphones 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 the other, to see which one lets me connect to Telegram. But it is very complicated to send videos, photos and even voice messages. It’s even harder, if not impossible, to get into WhatsApp »Pouria explains.

In recent years, Tehran has accelerated the creation 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 verified by the Islamic Republic – have remained accessible, as have Iranian-designed and regime-authorized messaging services and apps. But access to these services can also endanger their users: 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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