Sep 30, 2022 - Technology

Iran protests spark wider adoption of anti-censorship tools

Protester holding a sign reading "Say her name: Mahsa Amini"

Protesters outside Iran's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on Thursday. Photo: Erhan Demirtas/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Iranian citizens are flocking to tools designed to help citizens of blacked-out nations connect to the internet as their government tries to squelch protests.

Driving the news: "Daily demand for virtual private network (VPN) services in Iran is up over 3,000% compared to before the protests," Simon Migliano, head of research at, told Axios via email.

  • "This is a massive spike, given that demand was already healthy before the social media shutdown."

Of note: Google says its Jigsaw subsidiary's open-source Outline tool has seen a spike in demand from Iran this week, per data shared exclusively with Axios.

  • Outline allows third parties to set up secure VPNs that are resistant to disruption and censorship efforts.
  • One such third party, Nthlink, reports that its VPN saw a massive surge in use from 40,000 users a day to nearly a million at peak and continues to see usage at ten times a typical level.

The big picture: Protests erupted in dozens of cities in Iran earlier in September over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while she was in police custody for violating the country's mandatory head-scarf law.

  • Disruptions of the internet started with government blockages of social messaging platforms like Whatsapp and Instagram and then widened to shutdowns for wireless access and other basic online services in some areas, per Context.
  • Iran's government already blocks access to most other popular social platforms.
  • As protests spread, the U.S. revised sanction rules to allow U.S. technology providers to assist efforts to connect Iranians to the internet.

Between the lines: VPNs and related tools can route around government blockages of specific services but can't aid users when the government has simply shut down basic internet access.

Details: Google/Jigsaw's Outline was already serving Iranians since it is a tool for others to create and operate VPNs.

  • Jigsaw says there are about 39,000 Outline-based networks in operation around the world, and says it is "working to expand access to Outline in-country" in Iran.
  • "As an Iranian, I'm proud to work on tools that give people access to the open web —wherever they are," Yasmin Green, Jigsaw CEO, said in a statement.

The intrigue: As protests in Iran swelled, Elon Musk suggested that his Starlink satellite-based internet service provider could help there, as it has in Ukraine.

  • But, as the Intercept and others pointed out, Starlink service requires its own proprietary hardware receivers, and it's unlikely that the Iranian government will allow such dishes to be shipped over its borders.

Flashback: Recent waves of protests in Iran began with a movement against what was widely viewed as a rigged election in 2009 and continued with more recent bouts in 2018 and intermittently since then.

  • The government has aimed to prevent protesters from using the internet to organize, share information and document acts of violence.
  • Since 2009 Iran has ramped up a project to build its own, easier-to-control domestic internet known as the National Information Network.
Go deeper