Censorship in Iran: How to Access Blocked Websites

Laptop with blurred screen, Iranian flag and censorship icon
Click here for an overview of censorship in Iran
Censorship in Iran: A Short Summary

Iran has been known for its strict censorship laws. 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, because 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 NordVPN.

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.

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.

Despite the fact that many social media platforms are blocked, people continue to use apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram to access information and connect with others.

Using circumvention technology, however, has been compromised in light of the recent regulation that criminalizes the use and distribution of VPNs (virtual private networks).

How has it come to this? Below, we will 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 are subject to relentless control, making Iran one of the most oppressive countries when it comes to freedom of expression. On the World Press Freedom Index, Iran currently ranks 174th out of 180 countries.

Infographic showing the state of censorship in Iran

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 grown significantly, both online and offline. Tens of thousands of media outlets and websites are blacklisted for producing or exhibiting content that “threatens” national security.

Journalists, bloggers, and citizens are continuously silenced, harassed, and imprisoned. Independent watchdogs have also decried the conditions in which journalists are kept in detention centers.

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 foreign news outlets as well. 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.

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

This bill criminalizes the use and distribution of VPNs 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.

Messaging services like WhatsApp, Instagram, and Clubhouse are already experiencing this. As of 2022, the bill has passed the first stages of ratification.


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 is 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 also makes it difficult for people to protect their identities in case they want to protest.

Messaging apps and social media accounts play a large part in attracting people to anti-government protests. They are also a way to maintain communication with the outside world open, which is precisely the reason the Iranian authorities crack down so hard on internet freedom.

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 was 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.

There is a sense of omnipresent surveillance and censorship in Iran, which limits people’s access to information. Additionally, 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 Being Censored?

Infographic showing what content is being censored in Iran

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.

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. In 2020, the Iranian government detained 15 journalists for insult to Islamic values, spreading “false news,” and criticism of Iranian officials.

One of them, Roohollah Zam, was killed. Many foreign news outlets, including BBC and CNN, are blocked in Iran.

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 also includes:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • TikTok
  • Discord

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. Iran also has streaming services Hulu and Netflix blocked. The same goes for YouTube, Twitch, and Vimeo.

Notably, the Internet Archive, 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 charged with “endangering national security” of the Iranian state, and imprisoned.

Similarly, journalists and activists campaigning for better treatment of ethnic minorities, have been silenced, harassed, and jailed.

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


How Does Iran Censor the Internet?

Infographic showing 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.

The National Information Network

The development of an Iranian national intranet service, known as the National Information Network (NIN), is currently at 80%. With this creation well underway, Iran is following in China’s footsteps when it comes to keeping full control over the internet.

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 throttle 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, VPN tunnels have also been reported to 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, or how to watch Netflix when it’s 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 VPNs for regular use, since they’re more vulnerable to data leaks or government pressure.

Best VPN for Iran: NordVPN

Screenshot of NordVPN home page with logo added in the corner

Keeping privacy considerations in mind, we recommend NordVPN as the best VPN for Iran.

NordVPN is a very trustworthy VPN provider with excellent security features. They have a server network of over 5,000 servers in 60+ countries, which gives you access to thousands of web pages that are otherwise blocked in Iran.

With an excellent track record for fast connection speeds, NordVPN will let you catch up on news, unblock your social media accounts, and browse the web without any issues.

In terms of encryption, NordVPN uses 256-bit AES data encryption on the following protocols: OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPSec, and NordLynx (based on WireGuard). They have a clear no-log policy and offer a variety of extra features, including kill switch protection, a malware blocker, and custom DNS servers.

NordVPN is also a very affordable VPN that’s suitable for both expert VPN users as well as beginners. It’s ideal for use in organizations, or for individual usage.

NordVPN
Our pick
Our pick
Deal:
Only $3.29 a month for a two-year subscription with a 30-day money-back guarantee!
From
$3.29
9.3
  • Excellent protection and a large network of servers
  • Nice and pleasing application
  • No logs
Visit NordVPN

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

Surfshark
Deal:
Safe and anonymous internet for only $2.30 a month
From
$2.30
9.0
  • Very user-friendly and works with Netflix and torrents
  • 30-day money-back guarantee. No questions asked!
  • Cheap with many extra options
Visit Surfshark

Other circumvention tools

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

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.

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

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.


Final Thoughts

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.

Military forces have a controlling stake in the state-owned telecommunications sector and the creation of an Iranian intranet is already in its final stages. This poses a serious threat to journalists, activists, and ordinary Iranians who face arbitrary detention and imprisonment on vague charges.

Censorship technology is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Iranian authorities use intelligent content-filtering software to selectively block websites. Moreover, they employ deep packet inspection to combat VPN usage.

Iranian citizens caught using circumvention methods face harsh punishment. 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.

Regulations are ever-tightening but access to the internet remains a human right. NordVPN can help Iranians access independent news and social media platforms. Additionally, using the Tor browser and encrypted messaging services can help circumvent censorship in Iran.

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 control over the media and use strict censorship techniques. Telecommunications are completely monopolized by Iranian authorities and many independent outlets are blocked or filtered.

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

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

Yes, you can, even though 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. But you can get around censorship in Iran with a reputable VPN.

NordVPN is the best VPN for Iran since 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.