Internet censorship in Iran
Internet censorship in Iran has been increasing. In the first few years of the 21st century, Iran experienced a great surge in Internet usage. As of 2013, Iran has 46 million Internet users with a penetration rate of 61.57%.
As of 2012, an average of 27% of internet sites were blocked at a given time and as of 2013 almost 50% of the top 500 visited websites worldwide were blocked, including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus. The blocked sites have a wide range of topics including health, science, sports, news, and shopping.
At the beginning of March 2012, Iran began implementing an internal Intranet. This effort is partially in response to Western actions to exploit its Internet connectivity such as the Stuxnet cyberattack which have fueled suspicions of foreign technologies. The government's response has included requiring the use of Iranian email systems, blocking popular webmail services, inhibiting encryption use by disabling VPNs and HTTPS, and banning externally developed security software.
When initially introduced, the Internet services provided by the government within Iran were comparatively open. Many users saw the Internet as an easy way to get around Iran's strict press laws. Internet censorship increased with the administration of conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005. Regime opponents in Iran are said to rely heavily on Web-based communication with the outside world.
Many bloggers, online activists, and technical staff have faced jail terms, harassment and abuse. In 2006 and again in 2010, the activist group Reporters Without Borders labeled Iran one of the 12 or 13 countries it designated "Enemies of the Internet". Reporters Without the Borders sent a letter to UN high Commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay to share its deep concern and ask for her intervention in the case of two netizens/free speech defenders, Vahid Asghari and Hossein Derakhshan. One of major accusation of Vahid Asghari was creating a national plan against censorship by the government.
In preparation for the March 2012 elections, the Iran government instituted strict rules on cybercafes and is preparing to launch a national Internet. It also requires all Iranians to register their web sites with the Ministry of art and culture.
At the beginning of March 2012, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader told Iranian authorities to set up a body to oversee the Internet. The body which is called The Supreme Council of Virtual Space will consist of the president, culture and information minister, the police and Revolutionary Guard chiefs. Their task will be to define policy and co-ordinate decisions regarding the Internet. This is thought to be the country’s authorities strongest attempt at controlling the Internet so far.
Internet service providers
Every ISP must be approved by both the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and must implement content-control software for websites and e-mail. ISPs face heavy penalties if they do not comply with the government filter lists. At least twelve ISPs have been shut down for failing to install adequate filters. The state blacklist consists of about 15,000 websites forbidden by the Iranian government. Before subscribers can access Internet service providers, they must first promise in writing not to access "non-Islamic" sites. In 2008, Iran has blocked access to more than five million Internet sites, whose content is mostly perceived as immoral and anti-social.
The primary engine of Iran's censorship is the content-control software SmartFilter, developed by San Jose firm Secure Computing. However, Secure denies ever having sold the software to Iran, and alleges that Iran is illegally using the software without a license.
The software effectively blocks access to most pornographic sites, gay and lesbian sites, reformist political sites, news media, sites that provide tools to help users cloak their Internet identity, and other sites nebulously defined as immoral on various grounds. Iran has been accused by its critics of censoring more Internet sites than any other nation except China.
Iran has since developed its own hardware and software for filtering purposes. The architecture of the Iranian Internet is particularly conducive to widespread surveillance as all traffic from the dozens of ISPs serving households is routed through the state-controlled telecommunications infrastructure of the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI).
American proxy server
Iranians can sometimes access 'forbidden' sites through proxy servers, although these machines can be blocked as well. In 2003, the United States began providing a free proxy server to Iranian citizens through its IBB service Voice of America with Internet privacy company Anonymizer, Inc. The proxy website changes whenever the Iranian government blocks it.
However, even the U.S. proxy filters pornographic websites and keywords. "There's a limit to what taxpayers should pay for," an IBB program manager was quoted as saying. The forbidden keywords are controversial—banning "gay" effectively bars access to a host of gay and lesbian sites—and have had unintended consequences. The banning of "ass", for example, blocks access to the website of the United States Embassy. A complete list of the blacklisted keywords on the American server can be found here.
Following the 2009 Iranian presidential election, the U.S. Senate ratified a plan to help curb "censorship in the Islamic Republic". The legislation dubbed the Victims of Iranian Censorship (VOICE) Act was allocated $50 million to fund measures "to counter Iranian government efforts to jam radio, satellite, and Internet-based transmissions."
Deep packet inspection
The possibility that Nokia Siemens Systems sold, in 2008, TCI a deep packet inspection countrywide capacity for monitoring or even altering content of Internet voice and mail communication was raised in a Wall Street Journal report in June, 2009. The company has denied that what it sold to TCI had such capacity but only lawful intercept capacity relative to child pornography e.g.;
Andrew Lighten, a NSN employee, however, states that the company does not have products for Deep Packet Inspection, and only provided Iran lawful interception capability for 3G UMTS mobile networks, which he states, is a fundamental requirement of the UMTS network as defined by the ETSI standards.
Internet connection speed restrictions
Iranian government uses speed throttling as a means of frustrating users and limiting communication. Significant speed drop of internet communications in the days following the 2009 Iranian presidential election, weeks leading to 2013 election, and during times of international political upheaval, including during the Arab Spring are examples of such behavior.
In October 2006, the Iranian government ordered all ISPs to limit their download speeds to 128kbit/s for all residential clients and Internet cafes. Although no reason for the decree was given, it is widely believed the move was designed to reduce the amount of western media (e.g. films and music) entering the country. There is also a newfound state awareness of how domestically produced content considered undesirable can pervade the Internet, highlighted by the 2006 controversy over the appearance of a celebrity sex tape featuring a popular Iranian soap opera actress (or a convincing look-alike). (See the Iranian sex tape scandal)
As of 2010, most major ISPs in Tehran offer 1 Mbit/s for 2,190,000 rials/month (around 60 dollars/month), 2Mbit/s for 3,950,000 rials/month (around 115 dollars/month) for unlimited data traffic. 1 Mbit/s with 2 GB traffic limitation costs 189,000 rials/month (around 9 dollars/month). Note these prices are just for Tehran. Prices are usually higher in other cities. Restriction for the residential client speed of 128kbit/s is still in place and the speeds mentioned above are just for offices and commercial firms. 
According to the American newspaper Washington Times, Iran is using lawful intercept capabilities of telecommunications system to monitor communications by political dissidents on the Internet. A "monitoring center" installed by Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) for Irantelecom intercepts Web-based communications and archives them for Iranian law enforcement officials. Lily Mazahery, a human rights and immigration lawyer who represents Iranian dissidents, reported that one of her clients was arrested because of instant messaging he had participated in with Ms. Mazahery,
"He told me he had received a call from the Ministry of Intelligence, and this guy when he went to the interrogation, they put in front of him printed copies of his chats with me. He said he was dumbfounded, and he was sent to prison."
According to a newly passed legislation, Internet Service Providers (ISP) in Iran are required to store all the data sent or received by each of their clients. ISPs may delete the data no sooner than 3 months after the expiry of each client's contract.
Out of country protests following the 2009 elections resulted in Iran increasing their monitoring of online social networks, especially targeting Facebook. Upon re-entry to the country, citizens that have lived abroad have been questioned and detained due to the contents of their personal Facebook pages.
Post 2009-election developments
In April 2011, a senior official, Ali Agha-Mohammadi announced government plans to launch a "halal internet", which would conform to Islamic values and provide "appropriate" services. Creating such a network, similar to one used by North Korea, would prevent unwanted information from outside of Iran getting into the closed system. Myanmar and Cuba use similar systems.
As of early 2012, Iran's ministry of information and communication technology was reportedly testing a countrywide "national Internet" network it is planning to launch aimed at substituting services run through the World Wide Web. The government is also working on "software robots to analyse exchanging emails and chats", in order to find more "effective ways of controlling user's online activities." One Iranian IT expert source defended the program as aimed not "primarily" at curbing the global Internet, but at securing Iran's military, banking and sensitive data from outside cyber-attacks such as Stuxnet.
In addition, by late January 2012, Internet cafe owners are required to check the identity cards of their customers before providing services. According to the news website Tabnak, an Iranian police statement states:
"Internet cafes are required to write down the forename, surname, name of the father, national identification number, postcode and telephone number of each customer. Besides the personal information, they must maintain other information of the customer such as the date and the time of using the Internet and the IP address, and the addresses of the websites visited. They should keep these informations for each individuals for at least six months."
In May 2012 Iran criticized Google for dropping the name "Persian Gulf" from its maps, leaving the feature unlabelled. Six days after Khamenei's statement, Iran announced that Google and Gmail would be added to the list of banned sites, to be replaced by a domestic Internet network largely isolated from the World Wide Web. Iranian media reported that the new system would be ready by March 2013. The new network already hosts some government and academic sites. Later on, google chose a new trick to avoid taking sides. Specifically, google is now using "Arabian Gulf" on the map when user is using arabic domains (e.g. google.ae) and "Persian Gulf" is being shown on the maps for the rest of world.
The isolation of the separate network was also touted as an improvement to network security, in the wake of the Stuxnet worm attack on Iranian's main uranium enrichment facility. A computer virus was also found in Iran's major Kharg Island oil export terminal in April. Communications and Technology Minister Reza Taqipour said, "Control over the Internet should not be in the hands of one or two countries. Especially on major issues and during crises, one cannot trust this network at all."
In September 2012 Iran's top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on Western leaders to censor the film trailer for Innocence of Muslims, which was posted to YouTube, a Google affiliate. Khamenei alluded to bans on Nazi-related or anti-gay sites in some countries, asking "How there is no room for freedom of expression in these cases, but insulting Islam and its sanctities is free?".
As of mid-2014, the government of President Hassan Rouhani is seeking to ease Internet restrictions in the country, with Ali Jannati, the culture minister, likening the restrictions to the ban on fax machines, video recorders and video tapes that was implemented following the 1979 revolution.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Internet censorship in Iran.|
- Blocked In Iran - Test if any website is blocked in Iran in real-time.
- Internet Enemies: Iran, Reporters Without Borders
- Iran and Internet Filtering (OpenNet Initiative - 2009 report)
- Fed contractor, cell phone maker sold spy system to Iran - Washington Times article (2009)
- VPN for Iran - VPN Service to unblock websites in Iran
- Unblock Iran with secure VPN Account
- How to Bypass Internet Censorship, also known by the titles: Bypassing Internet Censorship or Circumvention Tools, a FLOSS Manual, 10 March 2011, 240 pp.