Legality of Bypassing Internet Filtering in Iran

//PhD candidate in Politics, human rights and sustainability Ameneh Dehshiri discusses the legal basis for Internet filtering in Iran and the use of circumvention mechanisms.

Many Iranian internet users use Virtual Private Network (VPN) connections and other anti-filtering tools to circumvent internet limitations imposed by the government and to access sites such as Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, various international news sites and academic sources.[1] To the dismay of millions of Iranians, in March 2013, reports surfaced that VPN connections and other anti-filtering tools were no longer operational.[2] In light of this, a question arises as to the legal basis of imposing limitations on access to circumvention tools in Iran.

The 2009 Computer Crime Law (CCL) forms the legal basis for filtering and blocking websites that are found to be inappropriate or forbidden by the Iranian authorities. This law gave the Committee Charged with Determining Offensive Comment (CCDOC (for more on this body, see the Iran Media Program’s infographic here)) the mandate to identify sites that carry forbidden content. The Committee’s structural head is the Prosecutor General and is assisted by representatives from 12 governmental ministries and institutes. The CCDOC sends its monitoring orders to the Telecommunications Company of Iran (TCI) and other major internet service providers (ISPs) to filter and block identified websites. Consequently, websites found to contain forbidden or inappropriate contents are criminally charged and the case goes to trial. For a description of the various bodies involved in Internet filtering, see IMP’s infographic.

On December 29th, 2009, CCDOC announced its first list of websites with criminal content. According to that list “distributing any anti-filtering tools and teaching users how to use them” are crimes. However, some government officials went beyond this order to add that that the use of anti-filtering tools is criminal as well. For example, Telecommunications Minister Reza Taghipour asserted in October 2011 that “based on the law, the use of anti-filtering tools and VPN is a crime.” These ardent supporters refer to Article 25(a) of the CCL which “criminalizes producing, distributing and providing any software or electronic tools, which their especial function is conducting computer crimes.” They also refer to Article 25(c) which criminalizes distributing or providing any tutorial content for: illegal access to data, computers, or telecommunications systems that are protected by security measures, illegal access to content being transmitted through non- public communications, access to confidential government information, or the unauthorized distribution, deletion, or damage to another’s computer data or telecommunications system. However, according to these provisions in Article 25(a) and (c), “access to filtered content” is not defined as a computer crime.

According to the Principle of Legality in International Criminal Law (Nulla poena sine lege or Nullum crimen sine lege) there is no penalty without a law. This principle is also expressed in Article 2 of the Islamic Penal Code of Iran.[3] Therefore, the CCDOC’s announcement that “using or distributing anti-filtering tools and teaching how to use them” is a crime, is against the principle of legality. Moreover, CCDOC’s mandate to determine the criminality of specific website content is not legal as the Committee does not possess any authority to establish and or define new criminal acts.

In February 2012, two months before imposing the aggressive limitation on circumvention tools, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC) promoted new policies on distributing authorized VPNs. SCC announced that legal persons can request a legal VPN by referring to www.VPN.ir. There is however still no plan for individuals to apply for an “official” or “legal” VPN.

Conclusively, one can assert that imposing limitations on and blocking anti-filtering tools and VPNs does not have a clear legal basis in Iranian domestic law and principles. This practice can at best be considered part of governmental policy to limit Iranians’ access to an unfiltered internet and provide for further monitoring of online activities.



[1]See Current State of Internet Censorship in Iran, March 23, 2012, at http://viewdns.info/research/current-state-of-internet-censorship-in-iran/

[2].Jamejamonline, the reasons of internet connection disturbance have been  announced, Saturday, March 09, 2013, available at: http://www.jamejamonline.ir/NewsPreview/963875539653789276, (accessed at 25/05/3013)

Asriran, “Disorder in access to internet”, April 15, 2013, Available at www.asriran.com/fa/print/267045 (accessed at 25/05/3013)

[3]  The Islamic Penal Code of Iran was approved by the Law Affairs Committee of the Islamic Consultative Assembly on 30 July 1991, and ratified at the open session of the Islamic Consultative Assembly on 8 January 1990. English  version available at http://www.iran-law.com/IMG/pdf/Iran_Criminal_Code_in_English.pdf.

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