How Iranians Switch Between VPNs to Stay Connected and Break Internet Censorship


It’s been seven weeks since Mahsa Amini, 22, died in custody after being detained by Iran’s vice police for wearing her hijab “incorrectly” – an event that sparked nationwide protests that have since escalated. spread to the rest of the world.

To contain the unrest and prevent information from leaking out of the country, Iran has stepped up its already extensive internet restrictions, going as far as blocking international internet traffic and banning WhatsApp and Instagram.

To circumvent these restrictions and keep the channels open to each other and the rest of the world, Iranians are turning in droves to VPNs, or virtual private networks.

Researchers from the Top10VPN website recorded a 3,000% increase in demand for VPNs in the first week of the protests.

“The way we track VPN demand is by looking at thousands of different VPN-related search terms across multiple search engines. And we are able to follow, hour by hour, the fluctuations of these searches,” explained Simon Migliano, who manages and leads research at Top10VPN, to Euronews Next.

“Many things have changed”

Euronews traveled to the Iranian capital, Tehran, to speak with young people about the impact of these restrictions on their daily lives.

Darya, a student at Tehran University, said she has used 10 VPNs so far.

“After using a VPN for a while, it gets blocked and we move on to another. We need VPN programs even to download VPN from the Internet. I use Telegram and a proxy system to communicate with my family”, she said.

Niloufer said she used five VPN programs, but only two worked.

“We cannot pay for VPN services from our accounts because Iran has been locked out of the banking system. After a few days, the VPNs we use break and we have to download a new one. It is very difficult to find a VPN that works,” she says.

Heydar, who works as a waiter at a cafe, said the events have affected everyone’s lives.

“A lot of things have changed. The simplest thing is of course the internet. I use a VPN every day. In fact, I use 13 VPNs right now. Everyone’s phone is like that. That’s became a system. Even Google was filtered last month. Searching for something on Google was filtered,” he said.

“There are many free VPNs out there, but most of them don’t work. You have to try and maybe it will connect. There are better VPNs but you have to pay but they don’t work either. I have paid accounts with two VPN apps but they didn’t work last month.”

How do VPNs work?

VPNs are basically a type of software that allows you to hide your IP address – your unique identifier on the internet that tells websites where your connection is coming from.

Connecting to the Internet with a VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between you and a remote server, replacing your IP address in the process.

This means that to an internet censor trying to block traffic from a particular country, your connection will appear to be coming from somewhere else in the world.

So why are Iranians forced to download not just one or two VPNs to access the internet, but sometimes more than 10 different ones?

Iran is a special case due to the highly centralized nature of the internet in the country. It is considerably easier for government censors to block VPN traffic because Iran is less dependent on foreign Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

How Iran Targets VPNs

“The state owns or partly owns most ISPs and it can force them to shut down the Internet,” Migliano said.

“What we’ve seen during the protests is that, in different ways, the big ISPs [in Iran] blocked international traffic… very little internet traffic was leaking out of Iranian borders, they were blocking international gateways,” he added.

The government now plans to criminalize the sale of VPNs, introducing prison terms for offenders, and it has also used a number of tactics to explicitly target the use and functionality of the software.

“It has invested in expensive and powerful filtering technology that can identify VPN traffic and block it, even if it cannot decrypt it. They also blocked IP addresses and domains operated by VPN providers, making it difficult for them to operate,” Migliano said.

Yet while the Iranian government has proven particularly successful in implementing its internet censorship, it cannot permanently block all VPN traffic, Migliano added, due to the inherently messy nature of the internet. .

“There is not a single internet kill switch in Iran. It’s a quilt. And where there is a patchwork, there are little gaps,” he explained.

“So if a VPN service is constantly changing the domains it uses for app authentication, if it’s constantly spinning up new servers, then the connections will drop. It’s going to be spotty. It’s not going to be reliable, it’s going to be difficult. But they will still work to some extent.”

For more on this story, watch the video in the media player above.

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