Internet censorship is on the rise everywhere across the globe. But Iran is a nation in which the implications of censorship are particularly dire.
Tensions are high after the United States government assassinated Iran’s second most important military leader, General Qasem Soleimani, in January 2020.
A war with the U.S. may come next.
Prior to recent events, the Iranian government has spent the past decade increasingly curtailing access to news and information on the internet.
At the same time, new trade sanctions have also stalled access to web services like Amazon, the Apple App Store, GitHub, and other websites.
So with these current events in mind, we’ve put together a guide on how Iranian readers can access the internet freely using a Virtual Private Network (or VPN). Read on to find out more about the best VPNs for Iran.
Internet Censorship in Iran: Brief History & Context
Investigative journalists all over the world have long known that Iran has maintained a tight grip on the content its residents and citizens can see.
There is no such thing as internet freedom in Iran at the moment.
The Iranian government displayed its full censorship capabilities in the Iranian protests that ran from 2009-2012, also known as The Green Movement.
During the protests, we saw Iran blocking almost all online media sources. However, that did not deter the country’s citizens from turning to social media platforms and making their opinions public there.
Social media platforms played an important role in giving exposure to the popular unrest in the country because of some questionable policies put forth by Iran’s government.
With sites like Facebook and Twitter taking extra measures to make sure they remained online everywhere and at any time, the Iranian government found it extremely difficult to block such sites 24/7.
But that was many years ago.
The government has acquired and developed new tools allowing it to completely block sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, among many other social media platforms.
And while there is no doubt about the fact that some tech-savvy Iranian citizens still manage to use the internet as usual with the help of advanced tools, the fact is that the vast majority of the population in the country cannot even go to sites like eBay and Amazon.
Reporters Without Borders, an NGO, publishes a ranking of countries based on their press freedom. Internet censorship is factored into these rankings. In 2006, Reporters Without Borders published its first report exclusively studying internet censorship, ranking the world’s top “Enemies of the Internet.”
Even then, over 10 years ago, Iran was listed among the worst places for internet freedom world-wide. We should also note that in 2014, Reporters Without Borders listed the United States as an Enemy of the Internet—for the first time in the report’s history—after Edward Snowden revealed the U.S. government’s massive domestic and international surveillance programs.
Note:When attempting to understand Iran’s methods to block certain content on the internet, nobody really knows their exact nature. Iranian journalists and researchers that try to study the mechanisms of how the government controls the internet are at risk of government reprisal.
You probably do not need us to mention cases where the government in Iran killed dissidents and jailed “lawbreakers” who tried to find out more information than they ought to. All of this indicates that there is definitely something afoul that the government in Iran does not want anyone to know more about.
Of course, it is pretty clear that the government in Iran is using some sort of advanced filtering mechanism developed locally.
It is also possible that Iran got such filtering programs from one of its allies, such as North Korea or China.
Researchers James Merchant and Kyle Bowen produced a report in 2014 indicating that the government probably employed a three-layered filtering mechanism to control the dissemination of information online.
You don’t need to know exactly how these three layers work, but the report did mention that the government in Iran used Reactive measures in order to collect intelligence on the general usage of the internet in the country. Then the government fed all of that information back into processes related to developing Interceptive and Preventive structures.
Once the government has a “person of interest,” it can then start to record his/her activities. This is where the government can then launch Interceptive measures. With the help of such measures, the government in Iran is able to track and thwart any internet users who may have bypassed the country’s Preventative measures.
The Iranian government has designed Preventative measures in order to block users in the country from having access to any kind of content that it deems forbidden.
The report noted that Preventative measures could include internet speed throttling along with keyword filtering, HTTP host filtering, using content-control programs, DNS redirection and URL blacklisting.
Interceptive measures include traffic analysis, man-in-the-middle attacks, Deep Pack Inspection techniques and other methods to stop forbidden content from ever getting to users in Iran. The Reactive methods include connection throttling, SSL blocking, developer and activist threats, and user-behavior monitoring.
Needless to say, Iran has a pretty complex content filtering mechanism in place to shut off any kind of online content that could pose a problem for the government.
These methods are not only effective but they’re also designed to be multi-layered and complex enough so that even if a user is able to bypass a single method, he/she is still stuck with an internet that is heavily modified to suit the needs of the government rather than of the user themselves.
What Is the Best VPN for Iran?
The best way to freely access any website in Iran is to use a VPN (short for Virtual Private Network). By changing your IP address, a VPN will allow you to access websites, services and online tools as if you were anywhere else in the world.
There are plenty of VPN service providers to choose from. But for the purposes of this guide, we found that NordVPN is the best VPN for use in Iran.
First, NordVPN is the most secure of all the top VPN service providers.
It comes with several advanced security features such as an automatic kill switch, high-level encryption, DNS leak protection, support for streaming and P2P file-sharing, compatibility for all major devices, as well as an extensive VPN server network that covers over 5,500 locations in 59 countries.
The company doesn’t keep logs of customers’ data, so it doesn’t have any information to hand over to governments or other third parties that may want access to users’ data—another benefit for users in Iran, where online censorship is a major issue.
Secondly, NordVPN comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
It also accepts multiple international payment methods; users can even pay anonymously using cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. In other words, you don’t have to take any risks while signing up for NordVPN.
A VPN provider that relies on the most basic encryption and security features alone will not be the best VPN for Iran. If a website can see your IP address without a VPN, then you can be sure the government is going to know if you tried to access a banned website.
As mentioned before, VPNs for Iran have to have strong encryption capabilities. Strong VPN encryption means that no one will be able to find out your email address or see which websites you’ve had access to in the past.
Anytime you access blocked websites without encryption, the people working for Iran’s government agencies can easily see every piece of traffic that passes through your connection.
Also, using a VPN for Iran is a bit different then using a VPN for a country like the U.S. In the U.S., if your VPN doesn’t work, it is mostly an annoyance. But when it comes to Iranian territories, a VPN for such areas has to work. Otherwise, you could possibly go to jail.
How to Use a VPN in Iran
Do take note that if you want to use NordVPN in Iran, you will have to do some configuration manually to connect to servers that are well outside of the region. This will be well worth the effort since you will reap higher levels of security and encryption than almost all other online users. You will also avoid detection by obfuscating your browsing history and habits.
Note:We should also mention that just because you have signed up for a VPN does not mean that you are protected 100% and all the time.
You need to make sure that you sign up for the right kind of VPN service and take all the right precautions before accessing content that your government may not want you to access.
Here are just some of the things you need to take into account while signing up for a VPN provider to block geo-restrictions and access the internet without any filters:
- Make sure that the VPN provider you sign up for does not keep any logs. This is sometimes referred to as a zero-logs policy. NordVPN satisfies this requirement with a solid zero-logs policy.
- Obfuscation technologies are an important component to any VPN. This is more than just hiding your activity—some VPN providers like NordVPN offer obfuscation technologies that can defeat even the most complicated surveillance programs in the world.
- Strong encryption is also a must. Your VPN provider must use state-of-the-art and powerful encryption methods. The strongest encryption method currently available in today’s market is AES 256-bit. Anything lower increases the risk that your data and IP address will be revealed.
- An automatic kill switch feature has become an essential need for VPN services, especially as consumers are spending an increasing number of hours on the internet on a daily basis. A kill switch will automatically cut off all internet connection once it detects that your VPN connection has been dropped for some reason. VPN providers that do not have a kill switch feature will leak all of your data if your VPN connection drops, and this could happen without you knowing about it. By the time you come around and discovering the leak, it’s already too late.
- Another feature that has become very important is DNS leak protection. Do not sign up for a VPN provider that doesn’t offer DNS leak protection.
- Often, good VPNs will generally offer a 30-day money-back guarantee so that you can test out the software for a short time before committing long-term.
For people who plan on going to Iran for work or pleasure, they should understand that they need to download the NordVPN app well before they board their plane. Once you’ve arrived in Iran, there is no telling if you will be able to access any website or resource from where you can download the NordVPN app.
And if you don’t have the app, you don’t have any protection.
So to make sure you’re not blocked in Iran, you should install NordVPN well before leaving for your destination. Without a VPN in Iran, there’s no point in searching for ways to hide your online activity.
Are ISPs Your Friends?
In short, ISPs (Internet Service Providers) are not your friend. All ISPs are running a business. If they do not make money, they go out of business. To make money, they have to be on the good side of the incumbent government and offer a good product.
ISPs have no choice but to filter content at the request of governments since they have to abide by the law of the country. As far as Iran is concerned, the content filtering takes place at two levels: The government level and the ISP level.
You will find it extremely hard to find an ISP that is independent of the influence of the government. Almost all of them make use of specific keywords to block and filter content on the internet. A study done in 2013 found that almost half of the top 500 Alexa-ranked websites were effectively blocked in Iran.
The government also makes use of speed throttling techniques in order to slow down the speed of the user’s internet connection, so using a proxy becomes practically impossible. More specifically, the government has also blocked Tor and SSH tunnels.
Some security researchers, therefore, believe that Iran has actually not made use of blacklists. Instead, it has made use of whitelists.
Other filtering methods include techniques like DNS hijacking, DPI and man-in-the-middle attacks.
Many security researchers and political commentators believe that internet censorship programs in Iran are counterproductive. Since there is hardly a social media application that works in Iran without a good VPN provider, citizens of the country cannot communicate with each other as easily as some of the people in western countries.
That may sound trivial to some, but consider this: When Iran was hit with major floods in 2019, the rescue and recovery methods were extremely slow and ineffective. Some officials came out to publicly claim that the cause of ineffective action was the blockage of simple messaging and chat services such as Telegram and WhatsApp.
کاش دادستانی محترم نیز فعلا ولو موقت فیلتر تلگرام را بردارند تا مردم بتوانند از این امکان برای برقراری ارتباط استفاده کنند. https://t.co/hi4vK31wCf
— محمود صادقی (@mah_sadeghi) April 1, 2019
All of this leads us to the obvious question of whether or not one can access content that the government in Iran has banned while residing in Iran—irrespective of one’s citizenship status. The answer to that question is a bit tricky.
Some researchers have found that services such as Tor, proxies and SSH tunneling would simply not work in the country. We don’t think there is a test that you can perform right now to know for sure what would and wouldn’t work in Iran.
Then there is the problem of throttling. If the government is unable to block a given website, it throttles the connection speed of the internet to such an extent that it becomes unbearable.
So, our main advice to Iranians is to get a VPN. The best VPN for a country like Iran would ideally not be located there.
For the purposes of this guide, we recommend that you go with NordVPN. It’s the best VPN world-wide and can provide you with all of the encryption and security tools you need to circumvent censorship while also enjoying decent connection speeds.
If you’re traveling to Iran, get a VPN before arriving in the country. Whether you are going to Iran for one day or for a week, you need to have a VPN installed on your computer/laptop and/or smartphone that will do its job. This way, you’ll have enough encryption and security to stay protected before you even step foot in the country.
Note:Just because a VPN works in China (another country with heavy censorship) doesn’t mean it is for Iran as well. Refer to the section above where we discuss what constitutes a VPN that is specifically meant for Iran.