Current State of Internet Censorship in Iran
Added March 23, 2012 @ 12:51 pm
Internet usage in the Islamic Republic of Iran has increased significantly since the country's first Internet link went live in 1993, second only now to Israel when comparing the percentage of the population with Internet access in the Middle East. This presents a problem for a regime with a well documented history of press censorship as many users see the Internet as an opportunity to have their voices heard outside the reach of the Iranian Government. In response, in 2006 the Iranian Government began to dramatically increase its censorship of the Internet In Iran.
In this article, we examine the state of the Internet in Iran in 2012 by conducting a survey to determine whether top sites across all categories of the Internet are censored in Iran.
In conducting this survey, ViewDNS.info took the top 100 sites in each category as listed in Alexa's 'Top Sites' directory and tested access to these sites from an Internet connection in the Islamic Republic of Iran (as per our Iran Firewall Test). This is the same method employed by our Iran Firewall Test tool. Results are presented on a category by category basis in order to examine some of the findings in each category, as well as at an overall level which allows for comparison of censorship levels across categories.
Disclaimer: Whilst the results below are accurate at the time of writing, it is quite likely that the values will change over time due to the dynamic and unpredictable nature of the Internet in Iran and the Iranian Governments efforts to control it. Additionally, it should be noted that a number of sites appear in the top 100 list of multiple categories. A full list of the sites used in each category of this survey is available at the end of the article.
First, let's look at the results from each category individually.
Iran has always been, and continues to be, extremely conservative when it comes to this type of content. Such content is classed as morally inappropriate and in direct violation of Shiite values. It is expected that most if not all adult sites would be blocked in Iran. There have even been recent cases where Iranian web developers have been threatened with execution for involvement with adult websites .
As seen above, 97% of all adult sites tested were blocked in Iran. The few sites that weren't can probably be attributed to the face that new sites are constantly appearing on the Internet, making it difficult for the Iranian Government to have new sites blocked immediately.
This category features sites such as YouTube, Disney, the Discovery Channel and Oprah. A number of these sites, whilst classified in the broad category of Arts, contain information or content on topics that would be contradictory to the values of the Iranian Government.
Interestingly, more than half of sites in this category were censored (52%) including YouTube, Disney, TV.com and the MTV website. Also blocked was the 'Ultimate Guitar Archive' (www.ultimate-guitar.com) - perhaps the Iranian Government aren't fans of acoustic music? Sites that weren't blocked included IMDB, the Discovery Channel and Urban Dictionary.
The Business category contains the corporate websites of a number of large corporations such as Nokia, Verizon, Sony and UPS. It also contains the sites of financial institutions including Wells Fargo, PayPal, American Express, Bank of America and Citibank.
The results show that only 16% of business sites were blocked in Iran, one of the lower results we encountered in this survey. Of the sites blocked, a large percentage included corporate websites for News agencies such as Fox News, The Sun (UK) and the New York Post. An interesting observation is that sites offering stock photography such as Shutterstock and Dreamstime Stock Photography were also blocked, most likely because many of the images would be politically or morally challenging for the Iranian Government.
This category primarily incorporates sites of companies either dedicated to, or born from, computers and technology including Apple, Microsoft, Google, Hewlett-Packard in addition to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and 4Shared.
The survey revealed that 27% of sites in this category were blocked in Iran. Further investigation of these results showed that in general, sites belonging to computer companies such as Apple, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard were not blocked, whist sites with any form of 'social' aspect such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Tumblr and MySpace were all blocked. Interestingly, the popular new social networking site Pinterest is not yet blocked.
This category contains sites dedicated to gaming, such as IGN, BattleNet, Playstation and League of Legends as well as a number of gambling related sites such as BetFair, Bet-At-Home and William Hill Online. Again, results show that 27% of sites in this category were blocked. The majority of the sites that showed up as blocked were IGN sub sites, as the whole IGN domain is blocked. Additionally, most gambling related sites were also found to be blocked in Iran.
This category contains sites relating to health and fitness such as popular gyms, diets, fitness regimes as well as general health sites such as WebMD and NetDoctor. This category also comprises the websites of major health organisations such as the National Institute of Health (NIH), Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and FEMA.
Only 13% of sites in this category were blocked in Iran at the time of this survey. Sites blocked included the websites of Men's Health, Psychology Today, Men's Fitness as well as two sites dedicated to hairstyles: HairFinder.com and TheHairStyler.com. We can also assume that if there were a site in the top 100 dedicated to men's hair fashion it would definitely be blocked.
The issues of men's health and men's and women's hair styles are sensitive topics in Iran due to the Muslim religion having clear definitions of requirements when it comes to hairstyles. The Iranian Government also recently issued an official guide for approved men's hairstyles !
Kids and Teens Sites
This category is quite broad and covers popular children's sites such as Nickelodeon, Lego and The Cartoon Network, as well as a wider range of sites commonly used by teenagers such as Thesaurus.com, How Stuff Works and the Universal Currency Converter. Also included were websites of games and games manufacturers popular amongst children and teenagers such as Blizzard, GameSpot and Pop Cap Games.
Overall, 21% of sites in this category were blocked. Blocked sites of special mention from this category included the Barbie website, Stardoll (a site containing dress up games for girls) and GirlsGoGames.com, a site that contains web games for girls. Islamic law is very specific when it comes to the behaviour of women, hence the desire of the Iranian Government to restrict access to sites that may provide immoral content for young girls according to Islamic law.
Made up of the world's top news sites, this category was always destined to contain a high number of blocked sites. Press censorship has been a major focus for the Iranian Government for over a decade. With all major publications around the world now offering some form of online content, the Iranian Government's obvious reaction was to block access to the entire websites of major news outlets.
Results showed, however that only 32% of the top 100 global News sites were blocked in Iran. Whilst this figure is higher than most other categories, it is much lower than expected. Notable sites blocked in this category were The BBC, The Guardian, Fox News, The Huffington Post and the New York Post. Interestingly, sites that weren't blocked included CNN, Reuters, The New York Times and Bloomberg. Why this is the case is not exactly clear.
This category included popular travel sites such as Trip Advisor, Expedia and Priceline and popular airline sites such as Southwest, Delta, American Airlines and RyanAir. Also included were the websites of popular hotel chains such as Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott and Intercontinental and online humour sites eBaum's World, Fail Blog and Cracked.com.
Coming in at the lower end of the scale again, with only 12% of websites tested being blocked in Iran, this category did have some interesting results worth mentioning. A majority of the blocked sites in this category were online humour sites including eBaum's World and Cracked.com. The biggest travel related site blocked was Trip Advisor, a site used by many for independent reviews and ratings of all things travel.
Consisting of mainly online dictionary, university or maps related sites, this category came in with the lowest blocked percentage of all categories at only 5%. The only sites blocked in this category were Internet standards group The World Wide Web Consortium, social book recommending site GoodReads, online map service MapQuest, online dictionary Wiktionary and the social bookmarking site Listal (which probably doesn't belong in the reference category any more than say Reddit).
Why were those few examples blocked but similar sites such as Wikipedia and Google Maps not? This could likely be due to specific incidents that caused their blocking, or perhaps they just caught the Iranian Government censor on a bad day.
Containing popular sites from different regions around the world, this category included the biggest number of duplicate sites from other categories. This is obviously due to the fact that many of the most popular sites in specific regions are also the most popular sites worldwide (e.g. Facebook).
In total, 19% of regional sites were blocked in Iran. Interesting results in this category included Google UK and Google Ireland being blocked whilst Google US and Google India were not.
The Science category also had a low percentage of blocked sites. This category contains sites such as Nature.com, Science Daily, How Stuff Works, National Geographic and New Scientist. Other sites in this category included the Science and Environment sub sites of popular news outlets including The Guardian, BBC and Fox News.
With only 11% of sites in this category blocked, the results illustrated that a majority of these were the above mentioned sub sites of popular news outlets including the Fox News Scitech site, The Guardian Technology site and The BBC's Science and Environment site.
Outside of these, one blocked site worth mentioning was Kiva.org. Kiva allows for individuals to lend money online to entrepreneurs and small business owners in developing countries. There's even an Iran section on the Kiva website, presumably populated by Iranian's using proxies or Virtual Private Networks (VPN) such as HideMyAss to bypass the restrictions.
This category contains sites of big-name retailers such as Amazon, Ebay, Wal-Mart, Macy's and Home Depot. Also included were coupon sites Groupon and Living Social. The results for this category showed 28% of sites being blocked in Iran.
Interestingly, a number of mainstream stores websites were blocked including Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, Sears, Kmart and Saks Fifth Avenue. Unsurprisingly, well known lingerie company Victoria's Secret was also blocked.
This category contained social networking and dating sites such as Cupid.com and Match.com as well as sites relating to social matters such as retirement, social security and taxes. Coming in at the upper end of the scale, the society category contained 31% of sites that were blocked in Iran.
Observations in this category included the fact that both dating sites in the top 100 (Cupid.com and Match.com) were blocked, as well as the site Bible Gateway (biblegateway.com) which is dedicated to providing online access to the Holy Bible.
The final category tested was the sports category. This category contained the websites of popular sporting leagues such as the NBA, NHL, NFL, NASCAR and the PGA. It also contained popular sports news sites such as ESPN, Fox Sports, CBS Sports and The Sports Network.
Only 14% of sports sites tested were found to be blocked in Iran. Of these, a number related to specific types of sports or sports related that would be against Muslim beliefs. These included the Sports Illustrated site, body building site BodyBuilding.com and the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) site.
Across all categories, the average percentage of sites that are blocked in Iran is a staggering 27%. That means that more than one in every four sites on the Internet is inaccessible to users of the Internet in Iran.
Accordingly, if we then compare each category, we can see some clear standouts:
The graph above illustrates that the categories with the highest percentage of blocked sites were the Adult, Arts, News and Society categories, all recording over 30% of blocked sites. Coming in with the lowest percentage of blocked sites were the Reference, Science, Recreation and Health categories, all with less than 15% of sites blocked.
The highest percentage of blocked sites were observed in the Adult category with a staggering 97% of sites blocked. Iranian officials will be disappointed with this result, as the target was undoubtedly 100%. The lowest number of blocked sites were in the Reference category. With only 5% of sites in this category blocked in Iran, it is a clear sign that genuine educational and reference sites are not generally in the sights of Iranian censors.
With an average of 27% of all Internet sites blocked in the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is little wonder that the country is named on the Reporters Without Border's list of 'Enemies of the Internet'. In fact, the Iranian Government has recently suggested the idea of a 'National Internet' to replace the world wide web as we know it. Similar to North Korea's almost completely isolated network, this would effectively provide the Iranian Government with the ability to build a white list of sites that are populated onto the 'National Internet' instead of constantly updating a black list of websites.
Should this occur, the state of the Internet in Iran would take a dramatic turn for the worse. For the sake of free speech and freedom of choice, let us all hope this does not occur.
If you suspect that your website is blocked in Iran, you can test for yourself in real-time using our Iran Firewall Test.
Raw results from this survery in text format can be found here.
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