Unblocking the internet: How Iran’s protesters use VPNs to defy govt censorship

Ruptly VU
Ruptly VU
Jan 4, 2018 · 3 min read

Iran’s government has tried to dampen recent nationwide anti-government protests by placing a block on social media platforms.

Tehran recognized the internet’s capacity to facilitate a social movement, attempting to curb the threat by banning sites possessing the almighty power of collective action.

Technology isn’t easy to mute. Protesters find ways to easily un-block social media platforms and disseminate their message.

It’s a pattern repeated time and again in the new protest movements of the 21st century.

In Iran, Facebook and Twitter are permanently blocked since the so-called Green Revolution in 2009.

Almost a decade later, anti-government protesters used Telegram and Instagram to organize events and share content from the demonstrations.

Claiming to have 40 million monthly, and 25 million daily, active users in a country of 80 million, Telegram is an ultra popular messaging app in Iran, allowing encrypted messaging and discussions within groups.

One of the biggest groups to emerge from the recent protests is Sedaie Mardom, where its 1.3 million-plus members can view content shared around the protests.

The channel is run by Amad News, whose previous channel was removed by Telegram which claimed it broke the “no calls for violence” rule, after it “started to instruct their subscribers to use Molotov cocktails against police.”

Sedaie Mardom has remained in operation, despite calls from the Iranian government for it to be removed.

This led Iranian authorities to enforce a temporary block on both Telegram and Instagram, in an alleged effort to maintain peace amid the protests.

Details on Instagram use in the country are not available. One estimate, however, put the number of users at more than 20 million.

How effective are Tehran’s social media blocks? This is questionable.

As protests escalated, RT Digital witnessed a surge in anti-government content from protests being removed by uploaders, with activists telling us they fear government retribution.

Others, however, continue to post to the blocked platforms, using techniques including Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

Acting as a bypass to the country’s internet filter, VPN software including TunnelBear and Hawkeye are being pushed to protesters.

Based in Toronto, Canada, TunnelBear claims on its website that “the Internet is a much better place when everyone can browse privately, and browse the same Internet as everyone else.”

The easy-to-use software allows users to choose one of 20 other countries from which to access the internet.

This allows users to browse through a portal as if from that location, avoiding any blocks in place in their actual jurisdiction.

Opera VPN operates similarly on smartphones, with a few simple clicks allowing the user to portal through another country’s internet.

VPNs achieve this by encrypting data sent from a user’s device and sending to a VPN server in the desired country though a portal, bypassing any restrictions in the user’s country.

Data is then returned encrypted, again disguised by any filters restricted by the country, allowing the user open access to the internet.

Using these methods, protesters in Iran can view and post to Telegram and Instagram, ignoring the blocks and opening a portal to communicate with both protesters and the outside world.

Users of VPNs who want their identity to remain secret look for a “no logs” policy with the provider. The policy is a promise from the provider that log files which could identify the user are not kept.

This prevents a government from discovering the user’s identity if a VPN provider’s servers are seized.

“No logs” is a flawed concept unfortunately, with zero logging an impossibility due to system requirements of VPNs.

These details can often be small and inconsequential, minor details on connection times and speed to help increase the service — but even small details can sometimes lead to identification.

Despite the risks, protesters continue to find ways to defy blocks on the internet, ensuring their voice cannot be censored.

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