The use of Virtual Private Networks (VPN) by millions of Iranians to circumvent strict state censorship of the Internet could become a crime if a bill currently being discussed by the Iranian Parliament becomes law.
Banning VPNs would cut the country’s access to a large chunk of the Internet, as they are used by Iranians to view numerous popular sites that cannot be reached directly because of filters imposed by the Islamic Republic.
VPNs enable Iranians to send and receive encrypted and uncensored data across shared or public networks outside the country. It is also used to download the latest software and conduct legitimate personal financial transactions made difficult under international sanctions imposed on Iran
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran notes that this represents yet another attempt by the authorities to control people’s use of the Internet and limit their ability to share information and communicate. If passed, it would represent a severe violation of freedom of expression and the free flow of information.
Iran’s Cyber Police (FATA) chief Kamal Hadianfar defended the censorship move with references to parental concerns about the Internet and online crime, according to a Mehr News report on May 12, 2014. He expressed hope that the Judiciary would soon declare VPNs illegal.
Hadianfar did not provide details on the scope of the bill. It is not clear what kind of VPN activity would be deemed criminal, since it is widely used by private individuals, government offices, and businesses, including banks.
The bill on banning VPNs is being reviewed by the Judicial Committee of the Iranian Parliament. If approved, it would then be debated by the full chamber.