Iran's Internet censorship spurs lucrative VPN market, estimated at up to $600mn

Iran's Internet censorship spurs lucrative VPN market, estimated at up to $600mn
Reports say 97% of those aged 15-17 use VPNs in Iran. / (TIMA/Reuters)
By bne IntelliNews September 4, 2023

While Iranian officials speak of a prevalence of domestic online platforms among Iranian users, statistics hint otherwise.

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 social media platforms and streaming services, webpages of human rights organisations, as well as pornography, gambling platforms, content with alcohol and drugs, LGBTQIA+ content, etc. In a bid to side-step the restrictions, many Iranians use virtual private networks (VPN) to get past censorship.

A parliamentary research group in Iran says on average 64% of Iranians use VPN.

Yektanet, an Iranian online advertising platform, says 80% of Iranian users utilised VPN to log in to messaging apps and social media networks in the last Persian calendar year (March 2022-23).

Other reports say 97% of those aged 15-17 use VPNs in Iran.

In reality, the utilisation rate of VPNs in Iran is so high that it has opened a 200-trillion-rial market (about $408mn at the free market exchange rate), Ta’adol newspaper reported.

Other reports say the market is as big as 300 trillion rials, that is more than $600mn.

This is while the Iranian Communications Minister claimed last year that he had plans for eliminating the need for VPN use altogether.

The widespread filtering of social media networks that has been enforced since last year has remarkably increased VPN sales and use.

The death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in custody after being detained by Iran's morality police for wearing her hijab “improperly” on September 16, 2022 was followed by nationwide protests and a heavy-handed state crackdown.

Social media platforms such as Telegram and WhatsApp played a major part in disseminating reports and videos during the women-led protests, although the government considerably tightened its censorship and occasionally even shut down the entire internet network in Iran.

As the country nears the first anniversary of the young woman’s fateful death, the Iranian state is growing increasingly wary about another unrest.

Meanwhile, reports coming from inside the country say the restrictive measures on the internet have already begun, with many complaining about the painfully slow speed of their internet connections.