How Iranians are hopping between VPNs to stay connected and break through Internet censorship

It has been seven weeks since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody after being detained by Iran’s morality police for wearing her hijab “improperly” – an event that ignited nationwide protesters that have since spread to the rest of the world.

To contain the unrest and prevent information from filtering out of the country, Iran has intensified its already considerable restrictions on the Internet, going as far as blocking international Internet traffic and banning WhatsApp and Instagram.

To get around these restrictions and keep channels open to each other and the rest of the world, Iranians are turning en masse to VPNs, or virtual private networks.

Researchers from the website site Top10VPN registered a 3,000 per cent increase in demand for VPNs during the first week of the protesters.

“The way we track VPN demand is by looking at thousands of different VPN related search terms across multiple search engines. And we’re able to track, hour by hour, fluctuations in those searches,” Simon Migliano, who manages and heads up research at Top10VPN, explained to Euronews Next.

‘Many things have changed’

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

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

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

Niloufer said she uses five VPN programs – but only two of them work.

“We cannot pay for VPN services from our accounts because Iran has been excluded from 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 working VPN,” she said.

Heydar, who works as a waiter in a café, stated that the events have affected everyone’s lives.

“Many things have changed. The simplest thing is of course the Internet. I use a VPN every day. In fact, I am using 13 VPNs right now. Everyone’s phone is like this. This has turned into a system. Even Google was filtered last month. Searching for something on Google was filtered,” he said.

“There are many free VPNs 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 have not worked for the last month.”

How do VPNs work?

VPNs are essentially a type of software that allow you to conceal your IP address – your unique identifier on the Internet that tells websites where your connection is originating 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.

What this means is that to an Internet censor trying to block traffic from a particular country, your connection will look like it is coming from somewhere else in the world.

So why then, are Iranians obliged to download not just one or two VPNs to access the Internet, but sometimes upwards of 10 different ones?

Iran is something of a special case because of the highly centralized nature of the Internet in the country. It is less to easier for government censors block VPN traffic because Iran is dependent on foreign Internet service providers (ISPs).

How Iran targets VPNs

“The state owns or part-owns most of the ISPs and they can force them to shut down the Internet,” said Migliano.

“What we saw during the protests is that in various different ways the big ISPs [in Iran] blocked international traffic…very little internet traffic was escaping Iranian borders, they were blocking the international gateways,” he added.

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

“It’s been investing in expensive and powerful filtering technology that can identify VPN traffic and block it, even if it can’t decrypt it. They also have been blocking the IP addresses and domains that are operated by VPN providers, which makes it difficult for them to function,” said Migliano.

Still, while the Iranian government has proven particularly effective at implementing its Internet censorship, it cannot block all VPN traffic all the time, Migliano added, because of the innately messy nature of the Internet.

“There isn’t a single Internet kill switch in Iran”. It’s a patchwork. And where there’s a patchwork, there are little gaps,” he explained.

“So if a VPN service is constantly changing the domains that it uses for the authentication of its apps, if it’s constantly spinning up new servers, then connections will get through. It will be patchy. It will be unreliable, it will be difficult. But they will still function to an extent.”

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

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