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HomeIran News NowIran Culture & SocietyHow Iran's Regime Has Turned Internet Censorship Into a Lucrative Business

How Iran’s Regime Has Turned Internet Censorship Into a Lucrative Business

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In Iran, under the clerical dictatorship, internet censorship has become a systemic practice with the regime reaping the most benefits in terms of intelligence as well as cash. The government censors social media platforms while high-ranking officials like Khamenei and Raisi maintain active accounts on these platforms.

According to the state-run Sharq daily, the regime is profiting from internet filtering, with citizens forced to pay exorbitant sums for limited internet access. A monthly mobile internet package with 7GB of data costs around 28.2 million tomans, but citizens practically have to purchase such packages twice a week. Additionally, most virtual private networks (VPN), used to bypass filters, cost an average of 200,000 tomans per month for users.

Among 100 countries, Iran ranks second globally in terms of internet disruptions after Myanmar and second in limited internet access after China. The state-run newspaper Etemad reported how the internet-censorship mafia reaps billion-dollar profits at the expense of citizens.

“On a monthly basis, an exorbitant sum of 1.8 trillion tomans is taken directly from the pockets of citizens for the sole purpose of purchasing VPN services,” Ensafnews wrote on July 12.

Approximately 70 million internet users in Iran access social media platforms daily despite heavy filtering on these platforms. As a result, around 48 million internet users in Iran rely on VPNs to access their preferred social networks. The entire market for VPN services is controlled by the regime, with its massive revenues directly going to those responsible for internet censorship.

This situation highlights the regime’s hypocrisy, as it benefits from both restricting internet access and profiting from facilitating access for citizens.

In a speech on September 2019, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, the Minister of Communications under then-President Hassan Rouhani, referred to entities selling VPN services as the “mafia” without explicitly mentioning names.

Subsequently, former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told Radio Farda that “those who implement internet filtering are the ones selling VPN services.”

Hamid Fattahi, the former head of the Communications Infrastructure Company, also used the term “mafia” in an interview with the semi-official ISNA in November 2019, emphasizing that these entities face no consequences as their cases are lost in the judiciary files.

Ahmad Alireza Beigi, a member of the parliament’s Councils and Internal Affairs Committee, stated in an interview with the state-run Shafaghna website on June 7, 2023, that the money generated from selling VPN services circulates under government supervision and benefits specific entities.

Some Iranian IT experts have suggested that entities close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) automatically install VPNs on newly sold smartphones, laptops, and computers. This enables the regime to profit the most from the highly profitable market while secretly monitoring and controlling citizens’ behavior on the internet. Many citizens are often surprised by the amount of information that security agencies have about them after being detained. All of this information is obtained through monitoring VPNs controlled by these security agencies.

It is worth noting that the IRGC is not the only entity involved in producing and selling VPNs; other organizations, including the Bonyad-e Mostazafan (Foundation of the Oppressed), also play a role in this business.

State officials from various political factions in Tehran have increasingly acknowledged this form of plundering. Some are now arguing that the profits from this market should not be monopolized by a specific group or entity.

Dr. Majid Abhari, a state-associated sociologist and social behavior expert, discussed in an interview with the state-run website Arman-e Melli that “the current sale of VPNs is generating significant profits for those engaged in this business. The question raised is why, if someone is making profits in this field, those earnings are not directed to the government and deposited into the national treasury, which is facing various challenges. Recent statistics show that approximately 64 million people in Iran use VPNs to access the internet. The sale of VPNs to these individuals results in substantial profits, which end up in the pockets of certain individuals.”

Amidst the blame game within state media and among officials, arguing over which administration or party is responsible for the economy’s misery and the alleged “mafia” influence, the people of Iran share a common adversary: the ruling establishment.

The soaring prices of essential goods, the alarming decline in people’s purchasing power, the rising rates of suicide and addiction, the environmental devastation and the exploitation of scarce water resources by the IRGC, and countless other grievances all point to the clerical dictatorship as the culprit behind the suffering of generations of Iranians.

As the international community ponders how long the regime can withstand the pressure from the explosive society in Iran, the Iranians themselves, regardless of VPNs or government surveillance, have numerous compelling reasons for calling for regime change through any available means and at any time.