Iranians are finding ways to get around the government’s censorship of social media

Iranians are finding ways to get around the government’s censorship of social media
A protester holds a sign saying 'Free Internet for Iran' as hundreds of Canadians take part in a protest Saturday against the Islamic Republic of Iran in Toronto. Protesters showed their solidarity with anti-government demonstrators in Iran and their support of a national uprising of the Iranian people. Protesters called for a regime change for social justice and freedom and democracy in Iran. (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto)

Amid protests and upheaval that have resulted in at least 21 deaths and 450 arrests, Iranians have begun using tech tools to combat internet censorship, the Wall Street Journal reported.

On Dec. 31, Iran blocked the Telegram app, an instant messaging service that allows users to bypass governmental restrictions on internet access by encrypting and camouflaging users’ data.

Protesters have relied on social media and messaging apps to spread the movement’s message, relay news of demonstrations, and document governmental wrongdoings. By imposing restrictions on social media and messaging apps, the Iranian government has cut off protesters’ communication with the rest of the world, veiling possible malfeasance within the Islamic republic, and allowing human rights violations to go unchecked.

In a Jan. 5 statement, U.N. officials decried the government’s censorship, calling it “a serious violation of fundamental rights”:

We are very concerned at reports that the Government has blocked the Internet on mobile networks, and that social media services like Instagram and messaging services like Telegram have been shut down in an attempt to quell the protests.

“Telegram has been the most important tool for many Iranians to access uncensored news and information,” Fereidoon Bashar, co-director of ASL19, said in an interview with the Journal.

In a Dec. 31 blog post, Telegram founder Pavel Durov wrote, “Iranian authorities started blocking Telegram in Iran today after we publicly refused to shut down channels of peaceful Iranian protesters.”

“We are proud that Telegram is used by thousands of massive opposition channels all over the world,” Durov wrote. “We consider freedom of speech an undeniable human right, and would rather get blocked in a country by its authorities than limit peaceful expression of alternative opinions.”

In September, Iranian officials filed criminal charges against Durov, accusing him off making an app that aided the spread of “uncensored news” and “extremist propaganda.”

Internet censorship — as practiced in China, North Korea and Saudi Arabia — has became a useful way for governments to control the information entering and leaving the country. Without internet censorship circumvention tools, citizens cannot access much of the internet.

These tools use a variety of methods to provide anonymity, camouflage user data, and bypass restrictions imposed by governments. Telegram, like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger, allows users to securely send messages and files, as well as provide access to blocked apps and websites, all of which is essential to the protesters’ campaign to expose social and economic problems that have plagued the country for years.

“When Telegram got blocked, we got a big push,” Michael Hull, co-creator of Psiphon, an open-source circumvention tool, said. Following the Telegram block, Psiphon has experienced a 1,650 percent increase in unique daily downloads.

“When governments do this stuff, they are our best marketing tool,” Hull said.

Similarly, the user rate of Lantern, a mobile virtual private network app that cloaks users’ information and allows them to access blocked sites, has increased dramatically since the Telegramblock. The company has lifted all data caps for its Iranian users, allowing unlimited access to banned sites. “We’ve also tripled the rate at which we add new servers to meet demand,” Adam Fisk, the company’s founder, said on Twitter.

According to cybersecurity expert Collin Anderson, “People are using circumvention tools to access Telegram who might not normally use them. And that is giving them access to a much wider internet.”

The Telegram block is Iran’s latest attack on internet access. Twitter and Facebook have been blocked since the 2009 protests known as the Green Movement.

Half of the internet’s top 500 visited websites are blocked in the country. An Open Observatory of Network Interference report by Tor Project, an encryption software that allows for anonymous web browsing, found that Iran blocked more than 800 domains between 2014 and 2017, of which 121 were news media, as well as 109 that concerned human rights issues, 101 culture and 82 political criticism. The OONI report found that the Iranian government has blocked access to 27 percent of all websites.