Iran’s primary goal in recent years has been to create its own intranet, known as the National Information Network (NIN). Its secondary objectives have been to improve the government’s capabilities to remove specific online content, and to reduce citizens’ reliance on foreign apps such as Google and Telegram by introducing Iran-only alternatives. According to the US government, roughly $4.5 billion US dollars have been spent furthering these aims to date.

While this is understandably a major story for international news outlets, it is just a small part of Iran’s online landscape. To provide you with a more comprehensive understanding of what to expect when you arrive, we’ve created a country profile containing data on a broad range of digital topics. For instance, below, you’ll find information on the country’s data-retention laws, the state of its overall infrastructure, and the prevalence of free internet hotspots.

Internet penetration and availability

In 1993, Iran became the first country in the Middle East to get internet access. This hasn’t led to any significantly-higher levels of connectivity, however. The CIA and World Bank agree that as of mid-2018, 70% of the population had internet access. Research from Kepios asserts that this figure hasn’t changed by January of 2021, but also that the country saw 739,000 new internet users since the year prior. It’s difficult to say why exactly this is, but it could be due to a combination of overall population growth and increased connectivity in rural areas.

Source: Kepios

According to the government, every city in Iran is now connected to the internet, with 78% of villages connected. Additionally, internet access is available to almost everyone because Iran has some of the most affordable internet plans in the world. According to Cable.co.uk, it’s the sixth-cheapest place to get connected, with an average cost of $9.60 USD per month. Additionally, this average has actually dropped $0.90 year on year. It should be noted that these are the prices for access to the global internet; it’s possible to cut the cost by up to 50% by only using the National Information Network.

Kepios also notes a profound shift from desktop PCs towards mobile, with a 56% increase in traffic served to mobile devices between December 2019 and December 2020. This corresponds to a 45% reduction in desktop traffic during the same time period. Despite this, public wifi hotspots are less common than you might expect. Wifimap.io estimates that there are around 18,000 free hotspots in Iran, with around 5,000 in Tehran. This is more than in neighboring countries like Turkmenistan (3,100) and Afghanistan (1,600) but far less than in Iraq (381,000) or Saudi Arabia (180,000).

Internet speeds in Iran

By all accounts, Iran’s internet speeds are poor. Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index places it at #136 out of 176, with an average fixed broadband speed of just 19.17 Mbps. Those using mobile internet fare slightly better, with an average download speed of 30.17 Mbps. This is significantly slower than in the US (191.97 Mbps on average). However, it is roughly similar to the speeds on offer elsewhere in the region.

Source: Ookla

Notably, such slow connections place 4K streaming firmly out of the reach of most people. However, as live 1080p video only requires a 5 Mbps connection, Iranians shouldn’t have any issues watching HD content online. In fact, Aparat.com, a local alternative to the usually-inaccessible YouTube, was the country’s second-most accessed website in 2020 after Google.

Digital awareness

Iran has a poor track record on cyber-awareness. In fact, after taking 15 criteria into account, the UN’s 2018 Global Cybersecurity Index ranked Iran 59th out of the 75 countries studied.

There were a few significant findings; firstly, Iran had a higher percentage of mobile devices infected with malware than any other country in the world (30.29%). Second, it was the third-most impacted by banking malware (after Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), with an incidence rate of 1.6%, or one in 62.5 people.

Additionally, 29.06% of all PCs had flagged a potentially malicious program since the year prior. This is an absurdly high threat level, although only 2.68% of computers were actually compromised during 2018, which means Iran had one of the lowest infection rates in the world.

Online anonymity

At the moment, it’s possible to browse the internet anonymously in Iran. This is most commonly done either by creating disposable accounts to hide your true identity or using a public wifi hotspot. However, ISPs are required to make sure users are registered before allowing them to access the internet on mobile devices.

However, this looks set to change. The government recently introduced a new law which would see all individuals assigned an online ID. This would allow specific people to be identified in the event that they posted something the government deemed inappropriate. The country’s then Minister of Communications, Mahmoud Vaezi, specifically said that in the future, there would be no anonymous internet access in Iran.

Access to privacy tools

Iran is one of the few countries in the world that has restrictions on VPN usage. Currently, it’s only legal to use government-approved providers. That said, the point of these is questionable given that they won’t allow users to circumvent country-wide restrictions. Some Internet Service Providers even prevent customers from claiming discounts if they use VPNs on domestic websites, further encouraging them to rely solely on the country’s National Information Network.

Despite this, the Iranian people seem very privacy-conscious. Encrypted messaging app Telegram is by far the most popular communications platform, with around 50 million users. This is despite the fact that it has been officially blocked by the government since 2018 (though there is a government-approved fork available). Telegram has claimed that it aims to improve its anti-censorship tools so that the app will be permanently available, even in countries like Iran and China.

Surprisingly, Iran is a global leader in Tor adoption. In fact, it accounts for the third-most Tor traffic (7.2%), putting it firmly in third place after Russia (21.85%) and the US (13.14%). Notably, six of the top ten Tor-using countries have some form of authoritarian government. As such, it’s clear that this technology is quickly becoming a crucial tool in the fight against online censorship.

Cybercrime: prevalence and attack types

The Iranian government is known to sponsor various hacking groups and has ties to ransomware campaigns targeting Israel, DDoS attacks against the US, and cyberattacks against Saudi Arabia. A CheckPoint report from 2021 detailed two ongoing surveillance campaigns that the government is running and alleged that it hides spyware in everything from seemingly innocent apps to phone wallpapers.

As of May 2021, Spamhaus ranks Iran #4 for bot activity, with 417,294 known spam bots. This is substantially lower than the US, which is in #3 with 502,000 bots, but far more than the number that earned Thailand fifth place (278,000). It’s also worth noting that one of the ISPs most notorious for bot activity is Iran Telecommunication Company PJS.

Source: A10 Threat Map

A10’s threat intelligence map shows significant DDoS activity, too. At the time of writing, there were around 138,000 identified DDoS weapons in Iran. This is small compared to nations like Russia (553,000) and the US (3,584,000). On the other hand, it’s extremely high in comparison to neighboring countries and other regions of a similar size. For instance, Pakistan, which shares a border, has just 27,000 DDoS weapons. This suggests that cyber operations will be a main pillar of Iran’s global strategy moving forward.

Blocked content

Our research indicates that Iran’s censorship is among the strictest in the world. There is no publicly-available list of blocked online content, but a recent study from Iran International estimates that 35% of the world’s thousand most popular websites are inaccessible. Of course, the blocklist is constantly expanding, and efforts to monitor it are frequently hindered. Despite this, we have a tool that can help you tell if a specific website is blocked in Iran.

Content that is blocked by the Iranian government includes the following:

  • Foreign social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter
  • Pornography
  • Encrypted messaging services including Telegram
  • Many (but not all) foreign news outlets
  • Sites that host user-generated content, such as YouTube, Twitch, and SoundCloud
  • Websites covering human rights-related topics
  • Torrent sites
  • Websites covering privacy, VPNs, and encryption

The country has a track record of restricting access to apps like WhatsApp during times of dissent and protest. In some cases, it has even shut down the country’s internet entirely, most recently with a week-long blackout in 2019.

Despite its Citizen’ Rights Charter committing to freedom of expression, Iran’s laws do not lend themselves to individual privacy or free speech. Quite the opposite in fact: the country’s Chief Justice, Ebrahim Raisi, has a history of having political prisoners executed.

These problems continue to plague journalists to this day. Between 2010 and 2018, 75,000 people were arrested for their online activities. Part of the reason for this is that the country’s laws are vaguely-worded. For instance, they forbid things like “damage to public morality” or publishing content that is “contrary to Islamic morals” without actively mentioning what these are. Consequently, Reporters Without Borders has labeled Iran a “digital predator” numerous times in the past.

Privacy and data protection

Iran does not protect its citizens’ privacy well at all. The reasons for this are many and varied, but we’ll provide a brief summary below:

  • Facial recognition and biometric data collection are rampant, with data-protection legislation that freely allows the police to access the national databases
  • Iran does not have any general data protection legislation. Rather, its data protection is put together piecemeal from a variety of other laws. This means that loopholes are almost inevitable
  • Telegram forks with ties to the Iranian government led to 42 million Iranians’ credentials being hosted online with no protections whatsoever
  • The government has specifically said that it plans to make anonymous web browsing a thing of the past
  • Security forces monitor social media to ensure individual compliance with local laws
  • Individuals can be flogged, fined, jailed, or even put to death for their online activities
  • Iran continues to push ahead with its plans to create a segregated internet. This would make monitoring its citizens’ online activities easier, and allow it to further restrict access to content from the wider world