Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad  (Source: The Telegraph)
Ban makes it harder to use Facebook, Skype

While most industrialized nations today exercise a degree of online censorship, Iran has often been billed as among the worst.  Much like China, Iran both blocks material questioning the ruling party, and material it finds morally questionable (such as pornography).

I. Iran Bans Uncensored VPNs

In regimes like Iran, one common way to get around filters is to use an encrypted virtual proxy network (VPN), which funnels requests for forbidden content, encrypted, to servers outside of Iran, and then replies, encrypted, to the customer.  But Iranian internet censorship ratcheted up this week as state authorities began blocking traffic from encrypted VPNs.

Ramezanali Sobhani-Fard, a Parliamentarian from Iran's ruling ABII party and the head of parliament's information and communications technology committee, calls VPN use "illegal" for most citizens.  In comments to state news agency Mehr, he remarks, "Within the last few days illegal VPN ports in the country have been blocked.  Only legal and registered VPNs can from now on be used."

The blockade inadvertently cut off access to Google Inc. (GOOG) and Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO) search portals, which are typically allowed in censored form.  Mr. Sobhani-Fard said the government was looking into that unpleasant side effect of the new censorship rollout.

Iranian women on internet
Iran no longer is allowing the use of external VPNs, in a bid to step up internet censorship.
[Image Source: Reuters]

The crackdown comes after an announcement in January by Mehdi Akhavan Behabadi, secretary of Iran's Supreme Cyberspace Council to Mehr.  In that announcement, Mr. Behabadi had stated that only registered VPNs -- who operate inside of Iran and are government monitored -- would be allowed.  Banks and other financial institutions that have "legitimate" security reasons for VPN use were encouraged to switch over to the domestic options.

Reuters reports that an internet user in Isfahan, Iran's second largest city, confirms that VPNs are no longer working.  The man, who went by "Mohamad", comments, "VPNs are cut off. They've shut all the ports."

The blockade bans popular internet telephony services such as Skype and Viber.  It also blocks access to the world's most popular social network -- Facebook.  Iran views Facebook, Inc.'s (FB) network as a portal to dissent and has banned it; yet despite that the network has been popular in Iran thanks to the use of VPNs.

Iran Facebooki
Facebook remains popular in Iran, despite being formally banned.
[Image Source: Int'l Herald Tribune]

"Mohamad" reports that he and his peers are using "alternatives" to traditional VPNs in order to access Facebook.

II. Political Unrest is Boiling in Islamist Republic

The crackdown on VPNs coincides with a dangerous time for Iran's ruling regime.

A presidential election will be held this fall, amid tough inflation and poverty issues.  Iran's currency has been devaluing as much as 25 percent per week.  While Iran's leaders blame the U.S. and international sanctions, many in Iran are growing frustrated with the leadership direction.

Last election -- in 2009 -- saw the nation in not-quite-as-bad financial state, but still saw record levels of unrest.  The results of that election were contested, leading to protests, and a brutal crackdown by the government of two-term President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In recent weeks there have already been major protests.

Iran protests
In recent weeks Iranian protesters have clashed with riot police, similar to the riots of 2009 (pictured). [Image Source: Wired]

In response, Iran briefly banned Gmail, Google's popular email client, looking to further cut off potential contact between government critics.  However, so many politicians in the ruling party used Google's service that there was an internal backlash, and access was restored.

In the long term Iran is hoping to switch citizens onto its own miniature version of the internet, which will be monitored and air-gapped from foreign networks.  However, moving the nation's 75 million people on such a network is a daunting task, and one that the nation's troubled economy seems ill prepared to manage.

Source: Reuters

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