VPNs, essential tools for mobilizing Iranians in favor of freedom

A minister announces that the government will stop AfL and are the last internet freedoms in Iran about to disappear? While the country is experiencing a unprecedented uprising since the death on September 16 of Mahsa Amini, following her detention for an “inappropriate” veil, internet access it has become very complicated, if not impossible. VPNs, these virtual private networks where two computers can communicate with each other, outside of the rest of the Internet, are the best way to counter imposed censorship.

“Basically, installing a VPN is civil disobedience,” says Sara Saidi, a journalist specializing in Iran. This tool, comparable to a “tunnel on a mountain road” where the information exchanged is encrypted, is essential in the country to connect to the global network.

According to Top10VPN, an independent VPN comparator that tracks and tests these digital tools, “Demand for VPNs in Iran peaked on September 26 at 3,082% above average as people struggled to bypass the restrictions. The Internet. Since then, it has remained 2,012% higher than the pre-protest baseline,” the site’s statistics show.

However, Kavé Salamatian, professor of computer science at the University of Savoie and specialist in digital infrastructures in Iran, claims that the phenomenon is not new. “The situation is the result of a decade of work by the Iranian regime to re-architect the network in order to monitor it.” This is what he calls “putting the genie back in the bottle.” That is, to exercise control over a world that until then enjoyed great freedom.

Filtering similar to 2019

In 2009, at the time of the green revolution, “after the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad”, specifies Sara Saidi, the authorities started their work. Reporters Without Borders made Iran one of the “Twelve Enemies of the Internet”. In ten years, the government has expanded censorship, reaching various levels of Iranians’ digital lives. “The level of censorship there is so high that the nickname ‘Filternet’ is sometimes used to talk about freedom of internet access in Iran,” says Rayna Stamboliyska, cybersecurity and digital diplomacy specialist.

“Three days after the current protests, the government cut off internet access and temporarily blocked Instagram and WhatsApp in some parts of the country; The objective was to stifle the distribution of photos, videos and discussions related to the uprisings, which were regionalized at the time,” she adds. For Sara Saidi, who lived in Iran between 2016 and 2019, “the government achieved its goal in 2019, during protests against high prices and during which the internet was cut off for more than a week.” At that time, about 1,500 demonstrators lost their lives.

“The Iranian government now has the ability to decide which block of houses has access to the network, in which city it can cut off internet access. The level of control and regulation is getting better and better, says Kavé Salamatian. It is a selective and targeted censorship that allows the authorities to have the most precise control. »

“In Iran, the infrastructure is directly dependent on and subject to governance,” the cyber security expert admits. Thus, a public company belonging to the Revolutionary Guard has full powers to grant licenses to Internet service providers and manage the digital infrastructure. “There’s a central ‘tap,'” she explains. An ISP [fournisseur d’accès à Internet] has no choice but to provide technical means to monitor, filter and block its customers’ digital services if it wants to obtain a license. »

Total control, closed network and economic interests

In response to this censorship, Iranians normalized the use of VPNs. “I first downloaded free VPNs available online, Sara Saidi testifies. But they had a fairly close expiration date. I then switched to the paid versions to be able to connect to Twitter or Facebook. In 2019, Instagram and WhatsApp were not yet censored, Telegram only partially. »

For Kavé Salamatian, apps and social networks don’t all work in the same way, which makes blocking more difficult: “For example, WhatsApp uses a series of well-defined servers, while FaceTime has a series of servers all over the world. , much more complex to control Similarly, Signal and its highly flexible architecture, with requirements for crowdsourcing community, make it possible to deploy means of communication through proxies, which more easily escape government control. »

But what if the Iranian authorities decide at some point to completely cut off Internet connections, shut down the infrastructure? “Unthinkable”, answer the experts, because the Internet is essential for the economic life of the country. “The Iranian government has the capacity to disconnect the routers, but it is a risk to the economy and government services that it is not ready to take,” assures Kavé Salamatian. “Many start-ups have appeared in Iran, explains Sara Saidi. The Internet is vital to their survival, this is the reason that currently, in full mobilization everywhere in the country, the government allows a stream to pass, weak of course, but existing. »

reason to hope

The Iranian government therefore seems to have reached a kind of pinnacle of Internet censorship, although it wants to establish even more effective control by cracking down on circumvention tools. “Currently, Tor (a web browser that avoids censorship and blocking) and VPNs are in the same boat,” comments Kavé Salamatian.

“Iran’s cyberspace law, which is supposed to protect it from foreign interference and influence, including a strict ban on VPNs, tools not free, is in the application process”, points out Rayna Stamboliyska, who specifies that the authorities managed, during periods of intense protests, to reduce the functionality of VPNs to nothing. “But technology does not make democracy,” she comments.

An opinion shared by Sara Saidi, who ensures that the Iranian people are one step ahead of the government. “When the protests started a few weeks ago, all Iranians posted a message on the Internet saying ‘Be our voice, they’re going to shut down the Internet.’ They planned the coup, they know the censorship, they know what it’s capable of. to do the regime and therefore they predict. »

And then, how to imagine that while all the high personalities have accounts on social networks, talking about the Millennials and GenZ, who were born and raised with the Internet? “There are technological solutions that exist, similar to those deployed in Hong Kong, which make it possible to build spontaneous networks that do not need infrastructure”, rejoices Kavé Salamatian.

And then, concludes Rayna Stamboliyska, “technological tools do not overthrow governments; it’s the people who demonstrate who succeed. After seven weeks of mobilization, at least 176 people have died, according to the Norway-based NGO Iran Human Rights (IHR), and thousands of people have been arrested, including journalists, lawyers, activists and celebrities. Anger still roars in the place where now protests it’s no longer just about women’s freedom, but challenging domestic power in a more global way.

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