How Iranian authorities break their own censorship laws

The Iranian public television broadcast this screengrab of the Twitter feed of the Iranian foreign minister. The only problem being that… the station is not supposed to access Twitter.
The Iranian public television broadcast this screengrab of the Twitter feed of the Iranian foreign minister. The only problem being that… the station is not supposed to access Twitter.

This image hits at the heart of the hypocrisy of Iran’s Internet censorship laws. Al-Alam, an Arabic-language station that belongs to the Iranian public television network, recently broadcast a screengrab of the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s Twitter account. Except… this channel wasn’t supposed to have access to Twitter.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything special about this screengrab. However, when you look at the top left of the screen, you can see the letters “VPN”, which stand for a "virtual private network", which is, essentially, a network that creates a secure and encrypted connection to the Internet. Many Iranians surreptitiously use these networks to access sites that are banned in Iran, like Facebook and Twitter – but which high-ranking officials like Zarif openly use. The journalists working at Al-Alam obviously used VPN technology to access the minister’s Twitter account.

Even lawmakers break laws they voted for...

The Iranian government has banned the use of VPNs alongside software like Psiphon, which creates VPNs, and Tor, another network that provides anonymous connections.

But the fact that these programs are banned doesn’t keep anyone from using them… including, it seems, government-owned organisations like Al-Alam.

In fact, even Iranian members of parliament use these banned technologies, according to Amin Sabeti, an Iranian specialist in cyber security who’s based in London.

Of course officials, even lower-ranking ones, use VPNs. A friend of mine, who works in the Iranian parliament, told me that he had seen members of parliament use VPNs to access social networks and forbidden news sites. It’s crazy. These are the very same lawmakers who voted to ban social networks and decided on the penalties for using VPNs.

In an interview in the pro-government newspaper Quds, MP Iman Abadi Rasht recently admitted that he uses VPNs to access certain “scientific sites” that he says don’t contain any "unauthorised content".

However, he is technically breaking Iranian law, whether or not he’s a member of parliament.

Just like Sarif and Rohani, several other high-ranking Iranian authorities also have social media accounts. For example, Muslim cleric Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, has certified accounts on Twitter, Facebook , Google+ and even Instagram. Iranian President Hassan Rohani has a Twitter account as well as a Facebook account.

Internet access is a piece of cake for these dignitaries, says Amin Sabeti:

Certain high-level officials have easy access to the forbidden Internet sites. An Iranian who wants to connect to Facebook using a normal IP address [Editor’s note: a number assigned to the device they are trying to connect to the Internet] would be blocked immediately. However, high-level officials can ask for authorisation for their personal IP address. That grants them access to any Internet site they might wish to access.

Millions of Iranians access forbidden sites

It’s not just Iranian officials who bypass these bans. In reality, millions of Iranians find ways to access the main worldwide social networks. That’s how Facebook is able to have 12 to 17 million users in Iran. The messaging app Telegram has even more: an estimated 23 million users. This is because Iranian President Rohani, who’s been in power since 2013, is in favour of social media and has managed to keep access to Telegram open. But he hasn’t managed to budge restrictions on Facebook or Twitter.

In order to access forbidden sites, Iranians buy VPNs online for a few euros or get them from friends who live abroad. It’s not just social networks that are blocked in Iran. While FRANCE 24’s website is authorised, the website of the FRANCE 24 Observers in Persian is banned.

Because of these bans, Iranians who access the Internet are technically running risks when they visit forbidden sites. The penalty for using illegal technology like this ranges from 91 days to one year in prison. But considering the number of people who bypass these laws, it is extremely rare that Internet users are actually arrested or punished for using Twitter, for example. However, the user does run a higher risk of getting in trouble if he or she shares links or posts things that the government doesn’t like.