The Evolution of Information Controls in Iran

The Evolution of Information Controls in Iran - Digital

An Iranian state TV anchor woman wearing Islamic dress kneels on the ground, looking at her computer with a mobile phone and tablet lying next to the computer. She is one of the journalists attending the E3 / EU+3 Iran talks. The E3 / EU + 3 talks, which include the UK, France and Germany plus the USA, China and Russia are intended to discuss Iran's nuclear programme which Iran insists is intended for civilian purposes only while some governments in the West suspect it of having the building of a nuclear weapon as its ultimate goal.

The internet and its censorship have come a long way in Iran.  As the internet has changed and expanded, Iranian authorities have also gone through various methods of information controls to limit  the citizen’s access to online content.

In what can be considered the early waves of information control, the authorities created a blacklist of websites deemed inappropriate. This list was disseminated to ISP’s (Internet Service Providers)  which were responsible for removing and blocking access to the websites. This phase of control was characterized by its transparency, as attempts to access blocked websites would redirect users to an Access Denied Page, well known to Iranians. Transparency allowed for straightforward reporting from journalists and researcher groups such as  the Open Net Initiative (ONI), which manually compiled and maintained a list of the blocked websites in Iran. ONI ran regular tests on their list and published reports about the state of internet censorship in Iran.

However, as the internet’s influence grew, tensions between users and Iranian censors continued to rise accordingly and government-sanctioned censorship expanded to incorporate new methods of control and a wider range of social, cultural, and political content.

Using Deep Packet Inspection (DPI), the authorities monitored the country’s internet traffic and throttled what they did not want to route, which was usually encrypted traffic and those of circumvention tools such as Psiphon and Tor. A clear example of this was seen in research conducted around the time of the 2013 Presidential election. Using DPI, censors identified and dropped Psiphon traffic, which was primarily carrying banned content for Iranians.

This recent wave of information control targets internet traffic, rather than URLs. In addition, it is distinctly defined by the lack of transparency as the users are not redirected to the previously mentioned Access Denied Page, which also hinders investigation and reporting  in the previous style used by ONI and other bodies. This mode of information control has been dubbed dimming’ of the internet, by Collin Anderson, which stands in contrast to  blocking access to the Internet.

Although Iran has gone through various phases of intensifying and abating their hold on the internet, the change between transparent (blocking URLs) to non-transparent (network throttling) methods of information control has been most significant. This method provides the authorities the ability to blame technical problems for the traffic not going through, and can only be studied through Network measurement or circumvention usage data.

As methods of control expand from URL blocking to include DPI, methods of investigation and research should also expand to include network data and measurement as well as URL blocked list in order to grasp how online content is controlled in Iran.

Written by ASL19


ASL19 is a Research and Technology lab, dedicated to facilitating information access for iranians. We propagate and localize circumvention tools, work with developers and provide dedicated and personalized user support. We are committed to bringing guidelines on digital security and privacy to Iranians.