Every day there’s an assault on freedom of speech, especially in its digital form. Recently, protests in Iran led to the Iranian government to shut down major social media channels and disrupting the internet access in general. As the protestors block and cause chaos in the street, the Iranian government has taken its blockades on the internet. That government targeted the primary forms in which protesters communicate with each other and also with the outside world. Affected platforms include Instagram and telegram.
According to a report released by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), this crackdown has shown the steps the Iranian government is taking to advance its repressive grip on the open internet and the Iranian society as well. “As the government shut down access to the global internet, protestors desperately pleaded for a restoration of internet access. This is their lifeline to the outside world and to each other,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the CHRI. “The rights of the Iranian people to information access and internet privacy, both integral to the fundamental right of freedom of expression, are being severely violated,” the report also notes.
The move to shut down the internet had a significant impact on Iranian citizens and also for the protesters. If protesters can’t take their agendas on the street, they take them online where they can quickly assemble, organize and express themselves. To make matters worse even for the innocent people who aren’t protesting, the government also went ahead and blocked alternatives that individuals use to circumvent the censorship. This included proxy tools and other weaker Virtual Private Network tools.
Sanctions in play
Not only the government but also other international companies which should stand for internet freedom also seem to rob Iranian citizens their digital freedom. Although international companies have the intent to support the free flow of information, they are not doing so by being overly cautious regarding the sanctions. For instance, if they provide these services to the citizens, they may risk the fact that the Iranian government may gain access to their tech and these could lead to legal and financial complications for the companies. Despite the advocacy by NGO, tech companies still don’t want to risk and hence continue to deny services to Iranians.
For example, Twitter offers two-factor authentication for their customers, and this enhances the security of their customers. But this is not the case in Iran since this feature is not available and activists are impacted severely. In their defense but unofficially, Twitter claims that the government has control over telecommunication systems and officials can intercept the authentication codes before even reaching the users.
As the protests continue, there has been a spike in demand for Canadian companies especially those that offer VPN and VPN related services as it seems they are the only tools that are able to circumvent the censorship. One of the VPNs is the Canadian based TunnelBear which is now clear that it gives way where other VPNs can’t. Given the fact that it’s not expensive as other high-end VPNs, this VPN has been downloaded massively. Not only in Iran but also in other countries where users are experience government censorship such as in Venezuela, turkey and even in Uganda.
According to Ryan Dochuk, co-founder and chief executive of TunnelBear,
“TunnelBear is an application that people are downloading today en masse in Iran. We would estimate that just over the last week, over 100,000 extra users have come from Iran and downloaded TunnelBear to ensure they can continue to get access to social media and the outside world and stay connected during the protests.”
Dochuk further added that although people are getting access to chat rooms using TunnelBear, there are still reports that social media services are still being blocked.
How does the VPN avoid censorship?
Generally, VPNs mask your IP and replace it with another foreign IP address. But Tunnel Bear’s co-founder Dochuk explained it better.
“It’s quite simple. When you put an app on your phone, all the information that’s leaving your phone or your computer is encrypted as it leaves that device. That information is then sent to a server that is in some other location in the world, and that is basically before it goes out to the internet.”
TunnelBear also makes sure you are secured when you are surfing via a public WIFI, this is also done by encrypting all the information from your device.
Another working solution that has its demand rise in a couple of few day is Psiphon, a Toronto based company founded in 2006. This tool circumvents censorship by providing secure tunneling that allows affected users to access blocked content. According to Alexis Gantous who is responsible for business development and analytics at Psiphon, said that the average Psiphon installs increased to about 700,000 a day from last years Dec 31st and this surge is attributed to Iranian users.
“Our daily users from Iran increased almost tenfold for mobile platforms and even doubled on Windows when comparing to typical user numbers. We don’t have complete information yet, but it looks like between eight to 10 million unique daily users,”
Gantous further added.
Promoting internet freedom
With the surge in both companies, its expected that this means more revenue. But it’s not the case with these two Canadian companies. TunnelBear believes that the internet is better when it’s open and uncensored. In times of censorship, their policy inhibits them from generating more revenue from users. Instead, they increase their limited daily bandwidth without an extra upgrading fee. According to Mr. Dochuk and Mr. Gantou, both companies have also added and increased their network capacity to handle the demand and also maintain performance at such times.