Kathryn Cave (Middle East) - Iranian VPNs Blocked: What Does this Say About Censorship?

Is there something Machiavellian about Iran's latest bid to block the internet? Or is it just another ham fisted, two-footed approach to cyber-clampdown? This latest development has none of the insidious measures clear in western governments' approaches to taking control...

The Iranian government denounced the internet as immoral and a threat to national security ages ago. Since then numerous incremental measures have been put in place to make it harder to access the World Wide Web - including a plan to instigate ‘Iranternet' - the country's own bespoke internet. Finally on Sunday, the Mehr news agency was informed that the government had blocked "illegal" VPN access for good. This placed a final, irrevocable clampdown on access to numerous websites from within Iran.

Since 2009 accessing YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have been increasingly difficult (well, not possible really, without a VPN). Jeso commenting on one posting site recently said, "Most of my friends in Iran use VPNs to access blocked websites such as Facebook and YouTube..." Yesterday, Reuters quoted local internet user, Mohamad from Iranian city Isfahan, who said: "VPNs are cut off. They've shut all the ports." He also added Skype and Viber, internet services used to make telephone calls, had also been blocked.

The case of the Iranian internet has inevitably caused a heap of debate around the Orwellian implications of censorship, along with casting a particular spotlight on political regimes responsible for these measures. However, surely it also highlights the more underhand US and western governmental approach to control?

In an official blog from Google, published last June, Dorothy Chou commented on its data on worldwide government censorship, saying, "When we started releasing this [...] in 2010, we also added annotations with some of the more interesting stories behind the numbers. We noticed that government agencies from different countries would sometimes ask us to remove political content that our users had posted on our services. We hoped this was an aberration. But now we know it's not."

The government data (which Chou claims is updated on a six month basis, Jan - June, although the figures only stretch as far as June) does reveal a steady increase in government requests to remove information. Obviously publishing this data - including a complete breakdown of requests which Google has ignored - does seem a good way for the company to make itself look transparent. However, the results are none the less interesting. For example the following country specific information was included "Australia: We received a request from a state government agency to remove a YouTube video of statements made against members of law enforcement. We did not remove the video." Or, Germany, "The number of content removal requests we received increased by 140% compared to the previous reporting period."

So what about Iran? The wider world will always be fascinated by any attempt to take control over the internet. This sort of thing appeals to the ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four' loving element in all of us (this book came in eighth place on the BBC's 2003 ‘Big Read' based on three quarters of a million respondents' choice of their favourite book). In addition to which the question of whether the government could switch off your internet is always going to prove contentious.

What is more, the gradual curtailment of the Iranian internet has almost taken on a soap-opera like quality. In December the government unveiled a monitored, safe version of YouTube called 'Mehr' (a Farsi word for affection) which offers a strictly limited version of the video sharing site. Yet as ddkkpp2001pointed out on the Gizmodo news story, "funny how many European videos would be fine in their respective countries but are censored as pornography in America; and YouTube holds the keys on what content is 'safe'."

In January, the secretary of Iran's Supreme Cyberspace Council, told Mehr that internet users would soon be able to purchase ‘registered' VPN connections. In February, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported that ‘legal' VPN software was available at Developments this weekend, are therefore, the inevitable next step in a blatant and totally undisguised bid to fully ‘sanitise' the internet in line with Iran's long term political agenda. This is of course fascinating to the wider world. However, you can't help wondering if the by-product is it makes other governments appear far more ‘uncensored' than they actually are.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect



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