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'When you create filters, they create proxies': Iranian web users get past filters

After Rouhani declares Iran's internet controls ineffective, ministry finds that the majority of young Iranian users are circumventing firewalls
Iranians battle slow Internet speeds at a web cafe in the capital Tehran (AFP)

More than two thirds of young Iranian Internet users are using illegal software to reach websites that are officially banned, according to government research cited by media on Monday.

The study, by the research centre at the ministry of sport and young people, was published a day after President Hassan Rouhani dubbed existing Internet controls counter-productive.

Mohammad Taghi Hassanzadeh, head of the research centre, reported that "69.3 percent use proxies (servers in other countries) to circumvent censorship and go on the Internet", according to ISNA news agency.

Iran has a filtering policy that makes popular websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube inaccessible without the use of prohibited software capable of creating a VPN (Virtual Private Network) across a regular public Internet connection.

Advocates of filtering in the Islamic republic say it protects citizens from immoral content like pornographic websites, but opponents say VPNs render such restrictions pointless.

The research centre study was conducted in the 12 months following March 2013 and it involved 15,000 Iranians aged between 15 and 29.

According to its findings, 67.4 percent of all those who were surveyed use the Internet.

Some 19.1 percent chat online, 15.3 percent use social networks and 15.2 percent cite entertainment as a reason for using the Internet.

Five percent of those surveyed admitted that they access "immoral" websites, according to the research, which did not give details.

The report added that 10.4 percent use the Internet for scientific research.

Rouhani, who has cited science and educational use as a reason for fewer Internet restrictions, re-entered an edgy debate on censorship on Sunday, saying the current regulations are not working.

"Force does not produce results," he said in a speech broadcast live on state television. "Some people think we can fix these problems by building walls; but when you create filters, they create proxies."

“In this day and age, there is no choice but to satisfy [the aspirations] of the new generation. We cannot close off this or that by force.”

In his speech, Rouhani also suggested that his government could be making the shift towards greater use of the Internet.

“One of the ways to confront inefficiency and corruption is to introduce electronic government,” he said.

The decision by Rouhani's government to approve faster 3G mobile Internet licences for two Iranian companies last month was seen as a first step toward making Internet access easier.

As well as filtering, Iranian authorities are often accused of deliberately slowing down the Internet, which makes gaining access to even legally-sanctioned websites harder.

The granting of the 3G permits caused controversy with some of Iran's conservative clerics and officials, who said video call functions on smartphones could expose youngsters to dubious content.

Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makaram Shirazi last week issued a fatwa denouncing high-speed mobile internet, and later described mobile internet as “muddy water” in need of filtering.

The ministry of telecommunications, technology and information later stated that video calling would not be available, despite such services - including FaceTime and Skype - being accessible on regular Internet connections.

Though President Rouhani is seen to be making some efforts to liberalise sanctions-hit Iran, the detention of pro-reform journalists and “egregious” violations of detainee rights documented by Human Rights Watch continue to cause concern.

In May 2014 a group of Iranians was arrested for allegedly performing in a video of the pop song “Happy”, originally by Pharrell Williams.

The arrests sparked outcry, and they were swiftly released.

However, the Iranian-American journalist claimed by local media to have produced the video, Jason Rezaian, remains in prison after his arrest, along with his wife and another journalist, on 22 July.