In many countries across the globe, going online is hassle-free, but not in Iran. Though the country has been connected to the internet since the mid-1990s, citizens have consistently fought the government to hold onto their virtual freedoms. They deal with a range of hurdles, including low bandwidth, slow connection speeds, extensive filtering and, in some cases, requirements to register personal information with the state in order to get online. Iranian content providers have had to make do with a limited service and to find ways to reverse censorship online.
Iran has one of the slowest internet access speeds in the world. According to a 2010 report by Mehrnews, a Persian news agency, Iran ranked 144 out of 152 countries in terms of connection speed, placing it behind Venezuela, Nigeria, Bolivia, Iraq and Paraguay. A report by Akamai Technologies in 2013 verified that Iran’s average connection speed of 6.3 kilobytes per second is slower than in countries such as Afghanistan and Yemen, where internet infrastructures are traditionally less robust than Iran’s.
According to one internet user, Ashkan from Rasht, the provincial capital of Gilan in northwestern Iran, trying to send and receive emails can be frustrating and extremely time consuming. “Many times I’ve had to wait about 40 minutes to send or receive email through Gmail", he says. "It really shatters your nerves. It’s simply ridiculous to have to wait another 40 minutes for email when you need to do things on the internet. Of course it’s gotten much better nowadays and the wait is more like five minutes, but I still can’t check email on my phone, as I don’t trust the government. Unrestricted internet would really give me renewed confidence.”
It's a sentiment with which President Hassan Rouhani can relate. Last week, as part of a response to one ayatollah's claims that high-speed internet is haram, he joked that it was easy to fall asleep while waiting for articles to download.
Many customers assume that by paying for faster internet, they will receive a higher-quality service. But the reality in Iran is very different. Public access to specialized features like photo chats and video streaming have only improved incrementally. The slow bandwidth, inadequate fiber optic cables and the mismanagement of infrastructure also limit user access. Watching a YouTube video is possible on relatively low bandwith but because there is a high rate of packet loss— sets of information fail to process and send data to requested locations — in Iran even the most basic services are adversely affected.
According to data published by Global Traceroute, the “latency” or the delay in sending and receiving packets is worse in Iran than in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Palestine. Critics argue that the Iranian government intentionally pursues policies that limit how freely the Iranian people can access various sites online.
Despite all its limitations, by global standards, accessing the internet in Iran is very expensive. On average, Iranians pay 50 times more for broadband than the average world price. Website Net Index estimates it costs on average $871 a month in Iran to have the best access. A 256K internet service costs twice as much in Iran as it does in the United Arab Emirates, three times more than in Egypt and 12 times more than Turkey.
Many argue that government policy is the biggest barrier to a service that could potentially be widely available, high quality and reasonably priced. In a world where quick communication is essential to economic growth, this could drastically infringe on the country’s development.
State filtering of websites is commonplace. An unpredictable, inexact strategy for controlling what people actually access, nonetheless it is widely used by government authorities and accepted among internet users as an unavoidable part of going online in Iran. Websites that fall victim to this kind of censorship include anything from independent news sites, blogs, human rights websites, social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter and even sites that discuss less controversial topics like technology, the arts and sport.
Internet user Neema, based in Tehran, explains: “There are numerous news sites on Iran and the rest of the world that get blocked by the state. Things like Facebook, the BBC, Twitter, Iranian UK, YouTube and Radio Farda in particular. That’s why I bought a VPN [virtual private network] when I was a student living outside Iran.”
The government began censoring in 2002 and since then has become very skilled at stopping citizens from visiting sites of which it doesn’t approve. Prior to the contested election of 2009, the government blocked certain sites using keywords, HTTP-host blocking, DNS (Domain Name System)-blocking, or even simply blocked a site’s full address. After 2009, the government stepped up its efforts, blocking ports and sites based on the format of the files. This has, however, brought the added consequence of blocking both so-called “guilty” and “innocent” sites.
According to a study by J. Alex Halderman, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, Iranian internet users cannot access about 50 percent of art sites, 40 percent of those covering social issues, 30 percent of all news sites and 20 percent of sport sites.
The Freedom House Freedom on the Net report, published in 2013, looked at internet freedom across 70 countries. It placed Iran bottom of the list, ranking it below Uzbekistan, Ethiopia, Syria, China and Cuba.
Who does the Filtering?
Government bodies such as the Supreme Council for Cyberspace, the Task Force for Identifying Criminal Content, the Islamic Republic Cyber Army and the Cyber Police of the security forces, none of which are accountable to the public, choose which sites the public isn’t allowed to access. The Supreme Council for Cyberspace, the highest decision-making body when it comes to internet use, was set up in 2012 on the orders of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader.
The Supreme Council for Cyberspace, which works closely with the Task Force for Identifying Criminal Content, decides which content is “legal” and does so by looking at whether sites include information that either goes against social norms, against Islamic teachings, poses a threat to national security or which provides tutorials on how to bypass government filters.
Despite the vast resources the Iranian government allocates each year to boost its filtering power, the Iranian people have devised a number of ways to overcome these limitations. The most common methods include using a VPN (Virtual Private Network), installing filter-breaking applications like Ferry Gate that are developed outside of the country by groups fighting government censorship, or using the URL of proxy servers that have yet to be detected by the government.
According to another report by Freedom House, VPN is the most effective tool for bypassing filters as it’s easier to use and faster than other methods. It is estimated that in 2013 the market in Iran for VPNs was worth about $120 million.
Who’s Really Losing out?
The Islamic Republic has implemented a multi-faceted and complex strategy to censor the internet. But this merely shows how terrified the authorities are of a fast and freely available service. And, while filtering these websites may be temporarily extending how long the Iranian elite remains in power, it isn’t stopping the Iranian people from going online and finding ways to counteract filtering.
The problem is that the world today is so dependent on the internet that a country cannot develop to its full potential without it. Therefore, until the regime changes its approach, Iranian society will continue to pay the price, developing at a much slower rate than it should be and ultimately falling behind.