This article was written by a citizen journalist based in Iran using the pseudonym Mohsen Sepehri
Iran’s Supreme Council on Cyberspace has launched plans for a national virtual private network (VPN) in an apparent bid to command further control over Iranian citizens — bringing it one step closer to the North Korean model of blanket authoritarianism.
Although VPNs are designed to provide privacy online for users, the Iranian version has been established by the council’s working group on online crime and is based on the principle that private communication is illegal if delivered by a service not endorsed by the government, or if the individual or group communicating has not been given permission to engage in this communication.
The council will determine who is allowed to use VPN services, a process that has already prompted controversy, with many Iranians posting their views on social media, including the widespread assumption that the VPN roll-out will amount to intensified internet filtering — especially the filtering and blocking of VPNs provided by unapproved providers. They also anticipate a further crackdown on internet users in general, as well as new opportunities for the government to eavesdrop on its citizens. Many people have also expressed concern that the cyber council will implement extensive user identification schemes that will make it possible for authorities to identify people who use pseudonyms on social media.
Abolhassan Firouzabadi, the secretary of the Supreme Council on Cyberspace, unveiled the plans on Monday, April 13 in a statement to Mehr News Agency. Firouzabadi said the National Cyberspace Center would not have oversight for the new initiative. Instead, he said, it was a joint project between the country’s general prosecutor and the Ministry of Communications.
A VPN For the Economy
According to Firouzabadi, the working group to determine and identify online crime was reviewing current regulations on the use of legal VPNs in the country. He said amended regulations would concern all "social groups and classes,” adding that the new scheme was being designed to meet the needs of businesses and that it would set out what businesses would be entitled to the new VPN service. Banks were among the businesses he highlighted, and he said that embassies and government agencies would also benefit from the VPN services. “Also, in some areas we see US sanctions imposed on sites and applications that businesses need to use,” Firouzabadi said, adding that the VPN services would make these communications possible.
Details of the potential financial gains for organizations and businesses, including those businesses engaged in the sale of legal VPNs, have yet to beg announced.
He emphasized, however, that the bylaws had not yet been fully set out, but once they had, implementation of the new scheme would get underway, and would be managed and rolled out by the Ministry of Communications. The ministry, Firouzabadi said, would either directly authorize eligible groups to obtain licenses for the legal VPNs, or assign this task to a designated operator, which would be set up by the government. The secretary gave no timeline for the creation of such an operator.
Responding to the “Needs of the Country”
"We agreed to define different levels of internet access for users,” the Supreme Council secretary said in December 2019. “We have given the working group a proposal on determining instances where filtering is necessary. This issue has been raised for a long time, but it has not been implemented, and given that the VPN economy has become large and many organizations and individuals are involved in it and use it, we plan to establish official VPN providers in the country.” He reiterated that that government was keen to create an official VPN environment “based on the needs of the country.”
Unsurprisingly, in highlighting “the needs of the country,” the cybercrime official was referring to those individuals, companies and groups that support the Islamic Republic and its policies. Those who do not meet that criteria will not have access to the freer internet and nationalized VPN, and will be subjected to further censorship and online restrictions.
In November 2019, amid widespread protests across the country, the Ministry of Communications cut off the internet across the country in an effort to crack down on demonstrators and halt online coordination of public gatherings. Only pockets of loyal groups and government departments had access to the internet, including social networking sites such as Twitter and Instagram, where they helped disseminate pro-regime content and even mobilize violence against protesters.
Human rights groups have stressed the new measures will signal further erosion of citizens’ rights, and have drawn parallels with the most closed country in the world, North Korea, whose people have been completely stripped of their rights. The announcement of the national VPN in Iran is a fresh blow to large parts of the population, signaling a further push to shield Iranians from news and information about the world, and about what is going on within their own country.