Iran to criminalise use of VPNs: minister

Photo: Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

In a move to increase crackdown on internet use, Iran has had long-term intentions to criminalise the sale of virtual private networks (VPNs) used to skirt internet restrictions amid protests sparked by Mahsa Amini's death.

The Islamic republic has imposed drastic restrictions on internet access as it grapples with demonstrations that flared over the death of the 22-year-old after her arrest for allegedly violating the country's strict dress code for women.

The recently imposed restrictions include blocking access to Instagram and WhatsApp, which until now were the last remaining unfiltered social media services, in addition to clamping down on apps like the Google Play Store, as well as VPNs.

Some Iranians have been resorting to using VPN services to mask their geolocation, in order to browse information uncensored by the Iranian government, as well as projecting reports beyond the firewalls of the censors. That too, however, might soon be criminalised.

“Selling anti-filtering tools is unauthorised, but unfortunately it has not been criminalised. Efforts are being made to criminalise this issue,” said Telecommunications Minister Issa Zarepour.

Iranian media outlets reported last year that lawmakers were working on a draft bill that could further restrict internet access. The text also calls for jail terms for any one found guilty of violating the terms of the bill if it becomes law, according to the reformist daily.

The bill calls for “organising social media” and the banning of VPN software used widely to bypass internet restrictions and blocks imposed on social media platforms, Etemad newspaper wrote in June 2021.

Zarepour cautioned Iranians against using anti-filtering software as they risk causing “vulnerabilities” on the devices.

“The use of the so-called anti-filtering tools or VPNs for devices such as laptops, computers, and mobile phones will definitely lead to serious vulnerabilities because it facilitates hackers' access,” he said, adding that “as an expert, I recommend the dear people not to use these tools as much as possible.”

The criminalisation of VPNs is not new in authoritative regimes. Currently, a handful of governments either regulate or outright ban the internet service that could pose a threat to governmental narratives, which include countries like Russia, Belarus, China, Iraq, North Korea and the U.A.E, with Iran soon to follow.