“Who is online from Iran?”
“Islamic Republic had shut down all VPNs.”
“I am inside too, but I have access. If you contact your friends again, tell them to put it on 2G and use Psiphon 3.”
"Three days of trying, and you finally hear us from 'North Korea'."
These are messages from Iranians reaching out to one another on Twitter between November 16 and 18, 2018. Last November, a week-long internet blackout in the Islamic Republic made headlines around the world: a ham-fisted move by the Iranian government to suppress ongoing demonstrations. It was reported to have been a total shutdown, but thousands of Iranians were still able to get online – and took to Twitter to let their compatriots know how they had done it.
Iranian citizens, just like their counterparts the world over, need access to unfettered information on the internet to educate themselves, organise and stay in touch with their families and friends. Internet censorship has long been a powerful tool in the arsenal of Iran’s authoritarian regime, with blocks on internet searches, web addresses and social media blighting the lives of millions.
But the Iranian government’s ideologically-driven efforts to stifle the free flow of information are matched by those of computer scientists, activists and researchers working around the clock to provide Iranians with the tools to cleave a path through the darkness.
One such company is Psiphon, an organization based in DC and Toronto that provides one of the most ingenious anti-censorship tools available to people in freedom-restricted countries the world over.
The company has been helping Iranians get around online censorship for 13 years now. Its user base has snowballed from 10,000 to hundreds of thousands of unique Iranian users per day. This rose to 10.5 million a day during the blackout last November.
“Iranians never cease to amaze me with their determination,” says Mike Hull, Psiphon’s Toronto-based co-founder and president. “The feedback we receive is really heartwarming: people saying ‘Thank you so much, you’ve got me re-connected to my family’. It shines during a crisis.”
A Lifeline For Millions
Psiphon was launched on December 1, 2006, initially as a means for international broadcasters and entertainment platforms to reach audiences in areas hampered by censorship. It helped news outlets including the BBC, Deutsche Welle and partners of the US Agency for Global Media, such as Radio Farda, get past the Iranian firewall.
By allowing users to set up a private server through which they can access the totality of the internet, Psiphon has since helped millions of people to stay connected both via the web and on banned platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram.
“We gathered a large audience around the world,” says Hull. “We had to keep changing our software as the internet changed: 2006 is practically ancient times compared to today. Years in the internet world could be decades in the real world, and it’s hard to keep up.”
In May this year Psiphon had 2.2 million unique Iranian users, averaging 650,000 active users, many of whom are students, and more than two million connections a day.
Globally more than 20 million connections are made to the network across the world each day, with some of the highest concentrations of users in Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the UAE but with smaller numbers also scattered in countries across the world, from Russia to China to Egypt. It is also used in countries with unfiltered internet access by individuals who simply value their privacy.
Political contingencies and events unfolding on the ground can lead to spikes in people using Psiphon to get online. Psiphon’s owners have recently noticed a surge in users from India, for instance, and in Sudan last year.
This has held true in Iran too. During protests in late December 2017 and mid-January 2018, the number of Psiphon users in Iran soared more than six-fold to 12 million a day as the Islamic Republic banned Telegram – then the most popular messaging application in Iran, with around 40 million users – and Instagram in a bid to stop demonstrators organizing. Iran’s judiciary lifted the ban but then announced its reinstatement for Telegram on April 30, 2018, leading to a massive surge in Iranian activity on Psiphon which peaked at 8.5 million daily unique users. Telegram outages between these two periods also resulted in smaller “spikes”.
Staying One Step Ahead
“There’s a number of techniques that we use to disrupt the Iranian system,” explains Mike Hull. “One of the big innovations was to use content delivery networks.
“As cellphones became more popular, they were also heavily centralised in Iran. There’s IranCell and only two other network operators [Hamrah-e Aval and Rightel]. That has made it difficult because they can concentrate all their filtering systems there and keep them locked down.” As it stands, though, Psiphon does work for most cellphones in Iran and about 60 per cent of its traffic comes from cellphones.
The battle between the Iranian state’s top computer scientists and those at organizations such as Psiphon, Hull says, has mostly been a “civilized” one. The government finds and blocks individual servers but to their knowledge, has never directly attacked Psiphon’s own digital infrastructure. The only shot above the bows was their being “called out” on FARS news network.
Social media users in Iran, Hull says, also use Psiphon to check whether information issued by the government is accurate. For instance, if Telegram is declared to be out of service “for technical reasons” they can attempt to access it via Psiphon to see if it is up and running in the wider world.
The Psiphon team has also been working to keep on top of the development of Iran’s National Information Network, a government-controlled domestic intranet. The project, officials have said, is intended to “shield” Iranian users from the wider internet, with its “blasphemy, anti-national security teachings, and destroying the identity of the youth”. Last May the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution announced the cyber platform was 80 per cent complete.
“They are continually working on this and we are constantly writing code to be able to get around it,” says Hull. “Our next development cycle will have some new techniques to allow us to maybe even have the National Information Network become an asset to us. As they’ve been improving, we’ve been ratcheting up our techniques and we are confident.”
Tracking Censorship Data in Real Time
Psiphon has just launched its latest project: the Psiphon Data Engine, an interactive online dashboard that tracks the landscape of online censorship in real-time. It hosts an array of tools for users, from stakeholders to journalists to researchers, to identify network interference and get an idea of how well users are able to connect to the internet in a given region.
Psiphon’s in-house data on its daily active users and how long they stay connected – but nothing else, as the company does not store data on what it is used for – are presented in map and graph form and can be filtered by country.
It also displays live readings from the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), which runs constant checks to see which sites and platforms - such as WhatsApp and Facebook – are available in different countries hour by hour, as well as regional overviews of bandwidth and internet speed from internet performance tester MLab.
“In events like Iran’s shutdown we realised there aren’t many sources out there and it’s difficult for journalists to report on,” says Psiphon media manager Ali Tehrani. “Now that Psiphon has this vast network, an analytic system like this is really helpful.
“We can also see when something happens on our network and see what MLAB and OONI are reporting, to start to triangulate what’s going on.”
The service has been about a year in the making and the Psiphon team are now looking to bring other partners on board. They are also working to connect “spikes” in usage to real-world events such as shutdowns, data leaks, news reports and events on the ground.