Censorship in Iran: How to Access Blocked Websites

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Censorship in Iran: A Short Summary

Iran has been known for its strict censorship laws. At the moment, nationwide anti-regime protests are oppressed by growing surveillance, internet shutdowns, and banned apps.

Any content that can be considered a threat to national security is blocked or filtered, including:

  • Religious, social, and political opposition
  • Criticism of Iranian authorities
  • Social media platforms and streaming services
  • “Haram” content: pornography, gambling platforms, content with alcohol and drugs, LGBTQIA+ content, etc.
  • Webpages of human rights organizations

A virtual private network (VPN) will allow you past censorship. However, since the Iranian government challenges the use of circumvention technology, you need to make sure you choose a VPN with excellent security features.

Our pick for the best VPN for Iran is ExpressVPN.

Read the full article below for more information on censorship in Iran, as well as how to protect yourself online when pushing back against restrictions.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has one of the most isolated and restrictive media environments globally. Notable for its draconian censorship laws, the Iranian government has been adamant about limiting citizens’ access to independent news websites and social media platforms for years.

With the 2022 anti-regime protests in response to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini increasing in the streets and online, the Iranian Guidance Patrol, or “morality police,” is pushing back against internet freedom more than ever before. From website filtering to nationwide shutdowns, people’s access to information is blocked.

Despite the fact that VPNs are officially banned, Iranians continue searching for ways to organize themselves and consume independent media.

How has it come to this? In this article, we dive into the state of censorship in Iran, the reasons for its existence, and the different ways you can get around it.

The State of Censorship in Iran

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the distribution of news and the flow of information in Iran are subject to relentless control. This makes Iran one of the most oppressive countries in the world when it comes to freedom of expression. On the World Press Freedom Index, Iran currently ranks 174th out of 180 countries.

In 2010, RSF first included Iran on a list of thirteen countries designated “Enemies of the Internet.” While many had hoped that the global internet would provide ways to circumvent Iran’s censorship of traditional media, the Green Revolution of 2009 prompted a wave of cyber regulation.

Also known as the “Twitter Revolution,” Iranian authorities tightened their grip on the internet, which they deemed responsible for igniting the riots and protests. Since then, censorship in Iran has increased significantly, both online and offline.

Recently, a wave of internet restrictions has hit Iranian citizens. It all started after the death of Mahsa Amini, who passed away after being detained by the Iranian police for wearing “immodest clothing.” This caused widespread outrage and protests in Iran, which have been met with police violence, increased surveillance, and more censorship.

When taking a closer look at Iran’s censorship history, it becomes clear that it affects both the regular press and online media. We’ll discuss both in more detail down below.

Infographic showing the state of censorship in Iran

Independent media under threat

Iran does not guarantee freedom of speech as a constitutional right. Rather, print media, radio, and television have to follow a strict set of rules when it comes to reporting on political or religious topics.

Subversive commentary, anti-government propaganda, and insults to what is sacred are all prohibited. The government maintains strict checks on all published content.

This does not only affect Iranian media, but also foreign news outlets. To keep control over the flow of information, Farsi language sections in international media are inaccessible from Iran. Moreover, foreign reporters in Iran are put under close surveillance.

Reports of police raiding private homes and confiscating satellite dishes are not uncommon. Additionally, state-controlled television channels can be forced to air confessions extracted from political prisoners in order to discredit opposition to the government.

Social media and internet censorship

Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are only a few of the many social media platforms that are blocked or filtered in Iran. Blogging platforms such as WordPress and Blogger are also inaccessible, as are websites belonging to political groups and human rights organizations. Messaging apps WhatsApp and Instagram, which were previously allowed, are now also banned.

Methods of censorship in Iran range from blocking and filtering websites to nationwide internet shutdowns. The Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI) and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance work alongside internet service providers (ISPs) to implement content-control software to surveil websites and email.

Notably, highly-ranked authorities are not affected by social media censorship and have unrestricted internet access. Most recently, what has become known as the “Protection Billplaces all internet services and infrastructure under the control of the armed forces and security agencies.

This bill criminalizes the use and distribution of virtual private networks and proxy services and forces people to use their legal identities to sign up for online services.

Additionally, the bill requires international tech companies to have representation within Iran. Platforms that refuse to comply with surveillance and censorship orders will suffer bandwidth throttling.

Why Does Iran Censor the Internet?

Why does Iran censor the internet iconIn Iran, internet censorship is justified by the claim that it “protects national security.” In reality, it’s employed as a tool of control.

By limiting people’s access to information, the Iranian authorities keep a tight grip on public opinion. This strategy is meant to prevent reformist, anti-Islamic, or political dissent.

When it comes to social media censorship, the Iranian government also has a different goal in mind: preventing the Iranian people from organizing themselves. This is what’s happening at the moment. Banning messaging and social media apps is a way to curtail anti-government protests. For people on the street, it’s difficult to stay safe during these protests.

Messaging apps and social media platforms are also targeted, because they offer a way to keep communication with the outside world open. Accounts from Iranians let us know that it can even be difficult to access international news websites like BBC News.

Besides pushing back against political dissent, Iran also heavily censors content that contravenes the moral bindings of the state religion. Access to pornography, LGBTQ+ resources, or any material that violates Islam’s strictures on iconography and ideology, is entirely forbidden.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Iranian establishment has been known to suppress or manipulate information about the extent of the outbreak. Health-care workers were ordered not to discuss infection or death rates with the media. US and UK-produced vaccines were banned in Iran.

Self-censorship

Self censorship iconConsidering the persisting threat of arrest, torture, and harassment that many Iranians face, they tend to engage in self-censorship.

A sense of omnipresent surveillance puts people’s privacy and safety severely at risk. The radical control of communications has deterred citizens from speaking their minds online.

Some journalists and bloggers have even been forced into exile out of fear.

What Content Is Censored?

Any content that threatens or contradicts Iran’s religious doctrine or political narratives, is blocked. Additionally, ideas that go against the moral bindings of the state are restricted. We’ve listed the different categories of content affected by censorship below.

Infographic showing what content is being censored in Iran

Political opposition

The Iranian government takes a hardline stance when it comes to political criticism or opposition. News media are allowed to enjoy freedom of speech to the extent that it does not “violate Islamic principles or the civil code.”

Criticism of the Supreme Leader, who is the head of state and the highest political and religious authority, is strictly prohibited. Additionally, freedom of speech is limited for sensitive social issues, as well as discussion of high-ranking officials, security and military institutions, and the Iranian judiciary.

Reformist news outlets continue to operate to the best of their abilities, but at high risk of detainment, torture, or even death. Many foreign news outlets are blocked in Iran. In 2020, the Iranian government detained 15 journalists for an insult to Islamic values, spreading “false news,” and criticism of Iranian officials. One of them, Roohollah Zam, was killed.

Journalists have also been detained in the most recent wave of protests. Reporters Without Borders states that, so far (September 2022), 76 people have been killed in connection with the unrest. Authorities are clamping down with internet shutdowns and mobile disruptions, in order to prevent viral protest videos from reaching a wider audience.

Haram content

Besides political opposition, the Iranian government blocks tens of thousands of domains that are considered haram. Internet service providers are ordered to rigorously filter content, blocking certain keywords from search-engine queries in the process.

Blocked target terms range from obscene words to the keyword “women.” Included in the ban are pornography sites, web pages that promote the use of drugs and alcohol, and gambling platforms.

In 2010, website designer Saeed Malekpour was sentenced to death for creating a photo-uploading program that, unbeknown to him, was used by pornography platforms. Downloading torrents is also illegal in Iran.

Finally, considering the wider parameters of censorship regulation, certain domains related to health, sports, and shopping are also banned.

Social media and entertainment services

As stated before, many social media platforms are blocked. This includes:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • TikTok
  • Discord
  • Instagram (recently)
  • WhatsApp (recently)

Iran banned the popular messaging app Viber when it was revealed to be developed in Israel before being sold to a Japanese company. Moreover, when Telegram launched its free encrypted voice calling in April 2017, the Attorney General issued an order to all ISPs to immediately and permanently block the feature.

Music platforms SoundCloud and Pandora have been banned, too. Iran also made sure streaming services Hulu and Netflix were blocked. The same goes for YouTube, Twitch, and Vimeo.

Notably, the Internet Archive (Wayback Machine), which recovers and stores digital content, is also inaccessible.

Human rights organizations

Non-profit organizations aimed at advancing the rights of women, ethnic minority groups, and the LGBTQ+ community face a lot of pushback in Iran.

In 2007, five women gathering support for the abolishment of discriminatory laws were imprisoned after being charged with “endangering national security” of the Iranian state.

During the 2022 protests, similar attacks on freedom have been occurring. The Iranian Guidance Patrol uses excessive force to push back against activists, journalists, and regular citizens.

In a similar vein, those campaigning for better treatment of ethnic minorities, have been silenced, harassed, and jailed.

Almost all LGTBQIA+ content is blocked, too. A 2021 report of various human rights organizations found dozens of banned websites with LGBTQIA+ content.

How Does Iran Censor the Internet?

The application of internet censorship and its enforcement is the responsibility of The Supreme Council of Cyberspace. In 2012, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, specifically set up this committee to limit free access to the internet.

Decisions on censorship are made by the Committee to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (CDICC). In theory, the Committee bases its decisions on clear legislation.

In reality, restrictions follow from a patchwork of cybersecurity laws, each increasingly strict and limiting, that is often employed in a reactionary and politically motivated fashion.

When it comes to the various methods of censorship in Iran, we’ve outlined the main approaches below.

Infographic showing how does Iran censor the internet

The National Information Network

With the creation of the National Information Network (NIN), Iran is following in China’s footsteps when it comes to keeping full control over the internet. It’s a type of domestic internet that took many years to develop but is nearing its completion. Already, this intranet is under full control of the security apparatus.

The NIN will function like the “Great Firewall” and will require every person to submit social ID and contact details before being allowed access.

State-owned communications

Already, the Iranian government has a monopoly on the telecommunications sector. Iranian ISPs must register with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Telecommunication Company of Iran (TCI).

They are ordered to use content-control software and monitor personal communications. The TCI itself owns Iran’s largest ISP, the Data and Communication Company (DCC).

Iran’s largest mobile provider, the Mobile Telecommunication Company of Iran (MCI), is a subsidiary of the TCI. The second-largest mobile network, MTN Iran Cell, is in turn 51% owned by a subsidiary company of the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics.

This allows the military and Iranian security forces to monitor communications and restrict the mobile internet access of a combined 75 million Iranian mobile users.

Blacklisting websites and filtering keywords

All websites must register with the Ministry of Culture. They are subject to regular content removal requests for material deemed unacceptable by the government. Punishment for failing to comply can lead to substantial fines, blocked websites, or arrests of those responsible.

Authorities block access to certain URLs through keyword filtering. The list of banned keywords continues to increase.

Speed throttling

The Iranian Government regularly throttles internet speeds, especially in times of political unrest. ISPs are ordered to restrict internet bandwidth to make it difficult or impossible to access certain domains. In some cases, they target specific apps or sites, sometimes all traffic gets throttled.

Connection speeds have been significantly reduced during elections, the events of the Arab Spring, and any anti-government protests since. In Iran, reports also claim that VPN tunnels have been throttled.

How to Get Around Internet Censorship in Iran

In 2016, Iran invested $36 million to develop “smart filtering” technology based on existing Chinese software. The software would allow authorities to censor the internet usage of its citizens selectively.

At the same time, Iranian internet users are continually developing new methods to overcome state censorship. The use of online circumvention tools has grown in response to increasingly invasive monitoring methods.

You might be wondering how to get around Twitter censorship, what you need to do to get access to independent news, or even how to watch your favorite TV shows when your streaming services are blocked.

A high-end virtual private network (VPN) can push back against Iran censorship, though there are some important considerations to keep in mind.

Can you use a VPN in Iran?

Can you use a VPN in Iran iconVPN services continue to be a popular method of bypassing government restrictions, though their use is compromised in Iran.

The government plays a continuous cat-and-mouse game with VPN providers. They detect and block IP addresses of popular VPN providers and employ Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) software to detect and block traffic from VPN ports. This forces VPN providers to use methods that disguise VPN traffic as regular HTTPS traffic.

In July 2021, government officials tabled a bill that would criminalize the use and distribution of VPNs. The bill is expected to achieve full ratification in 2022.

As advocates for a free, accessible World Wide Web, we want to make sure you know exactly what to look for in a VPN, should you choose to use one in Iran. When picking a VPN provider, keep the following guidelines in mind:

  • To the extent that it is possible, do not submit any personal information when getting a VPN subscription. Always use secure email providers to prevent anyone from tracing the VPN purchase to you. Most VPN services now let you buy anonymously. This anonymizes your payments.
  • Choose a VPN with top-notch security features. Especially in Iran, VPN providers need to have a strict no-log policy. Make sure that the VPN has robust encryption protocols, a kill switch, and ideally, obfuscation or multi-hop servers.
  • Considering Iran’s heavy pushback against VPN services, you might not be able to access the websites of certain VPN providers. In that case, you might want to download a free VPN and use that to get a premium subscription.

In general, we don’t recommend the use of free virtual private networks for regular use, since they’re more vulnerable to data leaks or government pressure.

Best VPN for Iran: ExpressVPN

Screenshot of ExpressVPN provider website homepage

Keeping privacy considerations in mind, we recommend ExpressVPN as the best VPN for Iran at the moment.

With Iran doubling down on banning VPNs and proxies, not all VPNs work reliably. ExpressVPN, however, is still up and running and is currently your best bet for getting online in Iran. With over 3,000 servers across 94 countries, it helps you unblock tens of thousands of web pages that are otherwise blocked in Iran.

ExpressVPN is a very trustworthy VPN provider with a clear no-log policy and offers a variety of excellent security features, including kill switch protection, split tunneling, a Threat Manager, and custom DNS servers. In terms of encryption, ExpressVPN uses 256-bit AES data encryption on the following protocols: OpenVPN, IKEv2, L2TP/IPsec, and Lightway.

ExpressVPN also offers obfuscated servers, which make your VPN traffic look like regular traffic. Considering Iran’s high levels of censorship, this is a very beneficial feature.

Finally, ExpressVPN has a great track record for fast connection speeds, which will let you catch up on news, unblock your social media accounts, and browse the web without any issues.

In case you’re not fully ready to commit, ExpressVPN offers a 30-day money-back guarantee, so you can test the service for yourself.

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Suitable Alternative VPN: Surfshark

Screenshot of Surfshark VPN homepage with logo

If you want a cheaper, premium VPN provider, we recommend Surfshark as an alternative Iran VPN. Surfshark also has a no-logs policy and even supports MultiHop connections, routing your traffic through two servers instead of one.

Surfshark also offers military-grade encryption and has a massive server network. You can even have unlimited connections on one account, meaning you can secure all the devices in your household without issue.

If you need a budget VPN that offers quality features, you should definitely consider Surfshark!

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Best Free VPN For Iran: ProtonVPN (Use With Caution!)

As stated above, we don’t generally recommend using a free VPN in Iran due to increasing surveillance. However, at the moment, it can be difficult or even impossible to access a premium VPN. Often, the homepage is inaccessible or certain payment options are not available.

For this reason, we’d like to recommend our #1 free VPN for Iran: ProtonVPN. In terms of security, ProtonVPN offers AES-256 encryption, OpenVPN, and a kill switch. These features are more than enough to keep your data safe. ProtonVPN also has a very transparent privacy policy and is a zero-logs VPN.

What’s great about Proton in comparison to other free VPNs, is that there is no data cap. You can enjoy unlimited bandwidth on one of the three server locations that are available on the free plan: Japan, the United States, and the Netherlands. This gives you (limited, but sufficient) options to unblock social media or independent news websites.

The software is available for Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android.

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Deal:
A solid cybersecurity and privacy package for just $3.99/month!
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  • Strong encryption
  • Specialized servers
  • Free subscription available
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VPN Doesn’t Work? Use These Circumvention Tools

Considering Iran’s cybersecurity legislation that bans the use and distribution of VPNs in Iran, you might be looking for other circumvention tools to keep yourself safe online.

Browsers: Tor and Opera

The Onion Router (Tor network) is a special browser that routes your traffic through various connection points (nodes) in order to anonymize your data.

It’s often used by journalists and bloggers who, for safety reasons, want to prevent authorities to trace their online activity back to them.

Alternatively, you can use Opera’s free, built-in Opera VPN to access blocked content or download a premium VPN if the homepage is banned. However, Opera VPN’s privacy practices aren’t as great as we’d like them to be, so we wouldn’t recommend using this VPN in the long run. Instead, you can use this free option to purchase a premium VPN that will protect your privacy in a more advanced way.

Messaging apps

Encrypted messaging apps are already used by many Iranians. However, with Telegram at risk, you could consider an alternative service, for example, Psiphon.

Alternative app stores

Are you running into problems because the Google Play Store or App Store is currently unavailable? Try downloading your VPN from Softpedia, a database for software installation.

You can also check out TutuApp, which is an alternative for iOS users, or AppBrain, if you’re on Android. These alternative app stores have multiple VPNs available for download, including the ones mentioned in this article.

We would advise you to proceed with caution, however. Alternative app stores usually aren’t as safe as the regular platforms and might contain malicious software or illegal apps. Make sure you only download software from providers you trust!

Browser extensions

Finally, certain browser extensions excel at unblocking social media content. It can be worth your time to check out the following ones:

Keep in mind that Iranian authorities are actively pushing back against circumvention tools at all times. You’ll encounter filtering and blockades and might have to resort to different services.

Resisting Internet Censorship With A VPN

Iranian authorities have a vested interest in censoring the internet. Tens of thousands of websites with content that doesn’t fit the social, political, and religious conformity the state wishes to impose, are deliberately blocked.

This poses a serious threat to journalists, activists, and ordinary Iranians who face arbitrary detention and imprisonment on vague charges. Recent protests have seen a violent response from the Iranian authorities, both online and offline.

On top of that, censorship technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Iranian authorities use intelligent content-filtering software to block websites and deep packet inspection to combat VPN usage.

If you’re going to risk using a VPN, you must ensure it uses military-grade encryption and offers enough features to keep your data private. ExpressVPN can help Iranians access independent news and social media.

Censorship in Iran: Frequently Asked Questions

Do you want to know more about censorship in Iran and how you can get around it? Click on a question below to see the answer!

The Iranian constitution does not guarantee freedom of speech. The authorities keep a tight grip on public opinion, deciding what is and isn’t acceptable based on the strictures of the political and religious ideology.

Yes, the Iranian authorities hold complete control over the media and use strict censorship techniques. Telecommunications are fully monopolized by Iranian authorities and many independent outlets are blocked or filtered.

Yes, Netflix is banned in Iran. Other services such as YouTube, TikTok, and Facebook are also blocked due to Iran’s strict censorship measures.

A virtual private network (VPN) is an online circumvention tool that can get around censorship.

Yes, you can, despite the fact that Iran takes active measures to block VPN IPs using deep packet inspection technology. The recent “Protection Bill” actually criminalizes the use and distribution of VPNs.

If you’re struggling to get access to a VPN, there are alternative ways to bypass censorship, including anonymous browsers, software databases, and certain browser extensions. You can read all about them in our article on Iranian censorship.

ExpressVPN is currently the best VPN for Iran, since it’s one of the few VPNs that still works. It uses 256-bit AES encryption, has a kill switch, malware detection, and offers obfuscated servers.

If you are looking for different characteristics in a VPN, have a look at our top 5 recommendations.

International Censorship & Security Journalist
Lauren Mak is an internal censorship and security-focused journalist with a keen eye for how technology affects society. With a background in International Relations and North American Studies, Lauren brings a unique perspective to the VPNOverview team. Lauren has a passion for helping others understand the importance of privacy, freedom, and internet safety and brings that passion to VPNOverview.
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  1. in iran buying vpn is impossible .. we need free vpn .. what the government doesnt blocked yet

    • We’re researching the current options in Iran and will be updating our article with working tips and recommendations. Hang in there!

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