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How Iranians jump between VPNs to stay connected and break internet censorship

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It’s been seven weeks since 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in custody after being detained by Iran’s morality police for wearing the hijab “inappropriately” – an incident that sparked nationwide protests that later spread to the rest of the world .

To quell the unrest and prevent information from filtering out of the country, Iran has tightened its already significant internet restrictions, going so far as to block international internet traffic and ban WhatsApp and Instagram.

To get around these restrictions and keep channels open for each other and the rest of the world, Iranians are increasingly turning to VPNs, or virtual private networks.

Researchers from the website Top10VPN recorded a 3,000 percent increase in demand for VPNs during the first week of protests.

“The way we track VPN demand is by looking at thousands of different VPN related search terms across multiple search engines. And we can monitor hour-to-hour fluctuations in those searches,” explains Simon Migliano, who manages and leads the research at Top10VPN, to Euronews Next.

‘Many things have changed’

Euronews traveled to the Iranian capital Tehran to speak with young people about the impact these restrictions have on their daily lives.

Dariya, a student at Tehran University, said she has used 10 VPNs so far.

“After using one VPN for some time, it gets blocked and we switch to another. We also need a VPN program to download VPN from the internet. I use Telegram and the proxy system for this.”

Nilofer said she uses five VPN programs, but only two work.

“We cannot pay for VPN services with our bills because Iran no longer has access to the banking system. After a few days, the VPN we are using breaks and we have to download a new one. It is very difficult to find a working VPN,” she said.

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Haider, who works as a waiter in a cafe, said the events have affected everyone’s lives.

“A lot of things have changed. The simplest is, of course, the Internet. I use a VPN every day. In fact, I currently use 13 VPNs. Everyone’s phone is like that. It became a system. Even Google was filtered.” Last month, some searches on Google were filtered,” he said.

“There are many free VPNs out there, but most of them don’t work. You have to try it and maybe it’s right. There are better VPNs out there, but you have to pay, but they don’t work as well. I paid with two VPN apps, but they stopped working a month ago.”

How do VPNs work?

A VPN is essentially a type of software that allows you to hide your IP address – your unique identifier on the internet that tells websites where your connection is coming from.

Connecting to the internet with a VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between you and a remote server, changing your IP address.

This means that to internet censors trying to block traffic from a certain country, your connection will look like it came from somewhere else in the world.

So why are Iranians forced to download not just one or two VPNs, but sometimes as many as 10 different VPNs to access the internet?

Iran is a special case due to the highly centralized nature of the internet in the country. It is much easier for government censors to intercept VPN traffic because Iran is less dependent on foreign Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

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How Iran targets VPNs

“The state owns or is part of the majority of ISPs and they can force them to shut down the internet,” Migliano said.

“What we saw during the protests is the big ISPs in different ways [in Iran] Blocked international traffic… Very little internet traffic escaped Iran’s borders, they blocked international gateways,” he said.

The government now plans to criminalize the sale of VPNs, introduce prison sentences for offenders, and has also employed a number of tactics to explicitly target the use and functionality of the software.

“It invests in expensive and powerful filtering technology that can identify and block VPN traffic, even if it can’t decrypt it. They also block IP addresses and domains controlled by VPN providers, making it difficult for them to operate,” said Migliano.

While the Iranian government has proven particularly effective at enforcing its internet censorship, it can’t block all VPN traffic all the time, Migliano said, due to the internet’s inherently messy nature.

“Iran does not have any internet kill switch. It’s a patchwork quilt. And where there is patchwork, there are small gaps,” he explained.

“So if a VPN service is constantly changing the domains it uses to authenticate its apps, if it is constantly starting up new servers, connections will be lost. It will be spotty. It’s going to be incredible, it’s going to be tough. But they will still work to some extent”.

Watch the video in the media player above to learn more about this story.

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