This is not an in-depth blog post about the internet censorship in Iran. If you look for that you find better stuff ‘out there’ or maybe start with the dedicated wikipedia page, instead. This is mere a simple story about my own experience, using the internet in Iran.
Recently I was in Iran for educational purposes (the thing other people call vacation). I directly came from Bucharest where I was at FSFE’s General Assembly and where I used Airbnb to find a proper accommodation. For those who do not know: Airbnb is a service that offers private accommodations, provided by local people. To prove reliability of the hosts, it comes with a built-in recommendation system. So I was in Iran now and I wanted to write a recommendation about my host in Bucharest inside Airbnb. But, when I tried to log in, I was facing this:
Why can I not use Airbnb from my location?
Airbnb has to keep to the law of the United States, that says that people of distinct countries are not allowed to use our service. That is why our service is not available in Cuba, Syria, Iran and Sudan.
I was surprised. I didn’t know about such a law. An American law that prevents American organizations to operate online services in Iran? Sounds like part of political sanctions.
Instinctively, I wanted to tweet this screenshot. But, when trying to, I could not connect with Twitter. Actually, now I was facing an Iran law that prevents American organizations to operate online services in Iran. Twitter is blocked in Iran as part of political censorship.
Now I was curious about both sides. But let’s start with the sanctions and Airbnb:
It seems like Airbnb is acting under anticipatory obedience. And although Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb, said that they like to expand Airbnb service into Iran, I was still facing exclusion in September 2015. Well, not that surprising, as it goes in line with former behavior of Airbnb who already stood out in the past with overinterpreting sanctions towards Iran as EFF reported in 2013. However, now it seems they just did that too long. Because since two weeks there is a competitor that is offering the same service in Iran.
Three different kinds of censorship
According to Wikipedia
“almost 50% of the top 500 visited websites in the world, including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus, are blocked in Iran. The blocked sites have a wide range of topics including health, science, sports, news, and even shopping.”
I had some time and I was curious to test and try different kind of services to see if they are blocked or not. To my first surprise, I was facing three different kinds of blockades:
- Services that are offered by foreign (in my case US only) companies and that refuse to offer their services in Iran. As already said, this was true for Airbnb, but also for Amazon, which was an even stranger experience. You are able to log-in and do everything you are used to do … until you press the order button. Then, the system says that it is not possible to order from Iran – although your destination, payment service provider and credentials are all from outside Iran.
- When you like to visit certain pages, you see a censorship-wall:
This wall blocks access to the page you initially liked to visit and offers you some links that you might like to visit instead about “culture and religion”, “society”, “internet services” … And after 30 seconds, you are again redirected, this time to www.peyvandha.ir, a government-administered website with links for browsing the net, religious references, as well as literature related to Iran’s Internet policy. (Funfact: This redirect page in its version 4, had as a main feature the promotion of “national holidays and events, maintaining the theme of allusions to Shia Islam and National Imams”. Disgusting. And another funfact: In Chrome there is an extension to block the censorship page. What leads me to the serious question why the censorship wall is not blocked by an adblocker as it is obviously full of ads??)
I was faced with this kind of censorship in requests to focus.de, bild.de, thesun.co.uk, bbc.com.
- When you like to visit specific services, you will not get redirected but simply blocked with the information: “This webpage is not available ERR_CONNECTION_REFUSED”
I was faced with this kind of censorship mainly when I liked to visit the “big ones” like Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Vimeo, Tumblr, Flickr, but also for gmx.* and for eff.org, as well as torproject.org
What is blocked, what is not?
If you like to hinder freedom of speech inside your country, I guess in every tiny “ABC of dictatorship” is written that you need to block foreign news sites, social media sites as well as all those pages by organisations that talk about “freedom” or “self-emancipation”. In Iran, I was surprised that some of these “classic” pages have been blocked, while others not:
- from the newspages focus.de, bild.de, thesun.co.uk and bbc.com have been blocked as well as sueddeutsche.de – however zeit.de, spiegel.de and tagesschau.de, theguardian.co.uk and aljazeera.com have not been blocked. What? Was this just overseen? Hardly believable. So why do they block the Sun, but not the Guardian or al Jazeera??
- gmx.* is blocked but hotmail.com not?
- eff.org and torproject.org are blocked but wikipedia, wikileaks, amnesty and netzpolitik.org are not?
And some funfacts:
- All social media services are blocked in Iran. So, when you browse pages that offer social media-buttons on their pages, you do not see the number of “likes” or “shares” for facebook or twitter – instead, it simply says “unable to connect”. But you see the number for google+, although google+ is blocked just as are facebook and twitter. Is this a special Google-deal?
- google search engine is available and allows you to find at least snippets of nearly everything.
Circumvent censorship with proxy server
It is possible to pass by the above described state’s censorship in Iran by using a proxy server that offers you an exit node in the United States or anywhere else, where you experience less blockades in the internet. This is good. And it shows how extremely important it is to improve and work on tools that promote freedom of speech and free access of information around the globe. In Iran they estimate 20 million internet users daily, the the highest amount in the middle-east after Israel. 20 million people only in Iran, hundreds of millions of people around the globe, and all of them are in daily need of services that help them to circumvent censorship to access information or simply connect with their friends. That makes these tools so important.
But these tools should only be seen as a “dirty hack”. The real challenge is to change the overall situation and prevent censorship in the first place. Because even if you experience the “whole internet” with tools like proxy servers, the effect of a default censorship in effect may not be underestimated.
Because, first, to prevent yourself from censorship you have to know about such specific tools. This might be true for young people but hard for elder people. And second, you have to prevent a two-class society. In case of proxys, for example, most of them cost money. I was talking to Iranians and they told me they pay around 5 Euro for a reliable proxy connection. 5 Euro. That is a lot of money in Iran, where you get a basic lunch for 1 Euro. 5€ means that Free access to information in Iran nowadays is only available for those who can pay for it. To prevent that, Free Software tools are so important.