Iran outlaws "unauthorized" VPN usage

Iran flag on a laptop screen
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Using a VPN service is now illegal in Iran, "except for those with a legal permit."

The ruling has been imposed by a new resolution issued by the country's National Virtual Space Center on Tuesday, February 20, 2024, and signed off by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The new ban adds to an already precarious situation on the open internet in Iran as citizens battle against growing government-imposed online censorship, speed throttling, and surveillance.

"Fear of the power of the internet"

"By making unauthorized VPN usage illegal, the regime is not only violating the basic human right of freedom of expression, but also isolating the Iranian people from the rest of the world and depriving them of the benefits of the digital age," Azam Jangravi, Information Security Analyst at CitizenLab and women’s rights advocate, told me.

Iranians have been living with some of the most restrictive internet environments in the world for some time now. Countless websites get blocked or filtered by the government on a daily basis in a continuous effort to control the information citizens can and cannot access. Social media blackouts are especially prominent during times of political turmoil, like the protests that occurred in 2022 and 2023 across the country.

Short for virtual private network, a VPN is security software that spoofs a user's IP address location to grant access to otherwise geo-restricted content online. It also encrypts internet connections, meaning that Iranians can harness its power to fight back growing government surveillance as well.

"VPNs are one of the few tools that allow Iranian users to access the global internet and express themselves freely on social media platforms," said Jangravi.

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Iran VPNs have been vital in bypassing restrictions and sharing the brave actions of women challenging the regime against mandatory hijab rules, for example, during the Women, Life, Freedom uprisings. Yet, despite VPN censorship also being high in the country, it's difficult for authorities to effectively keep up with this cat-and-mouse game with providers.

According to Jangravi, the new resolution is "a clear sign of the regime’s fear of the power of the internet and the potential of the Iranian people to challenge its legitimacy and demand change."

Similar remarks were echoed by US government spokesperson Matthew Miller, who accused Tehran of "choking off information that people need to make decisions about their lives and decisions about their futures," Iran International reported.

Alongside dissidents, entrepreneurs and even politicians have reportedly turned to VPN apps to access blocked content online. Small businesses have been crippled by daily internet speed reductions and web filtering. According to a recent report, Iran's internet is among the worst worldwide for connectivity due to these "self-inflicted" disruptions.

Therefore, commentators fear that the new ban might also inflict another blow to the country's economy and citizens' digital freedoms.

Jangravi said: "I hope that the international community and the tech companies will stand in solidarity with the Iranian people and support their struggle for digital rights and democracy."

Chiara Castro
Senior Staff Writer

Chiara is a multimedia journalist committed to covering stories to help promote the rights and denounce the abuses of the digital side of life—wherever cybersecurity, markets and politics tangle up. She mainly writes news, interviews and analysis on data privacy, online censorship, digital rights, cybercrime, and security software, with a special focus on VPNs, for TechRadar Pro, TechRadar and Tom’s Guide. Got a story, tip-off or something tech-interesting to say? Reach out to chiara.castro@futurenet.com