By Golnaz Esfandiari, RFE/RL
Are millions of Iranians criminals? Yes, according to an announcement by Iranian Telecommunications Minister Reza Taghipour, who says the use of antifiltering tools and virtual private networks (VPN) is a crime.
"We have to and will take any necessary measure to confront this soft war," said Reza Taghipour, Iran's telecommunications minister.
Many Iranians use such tools and proxies on a daily basis to bypass the country's Internet censorship, which is among the world's toughest. Iran blocks millions of websites and blogs deemed immoral or against the country's national interests or that offer uncensored news and information.
One of the blocked websites is Facebook, which is used by 17 million Iranians, according to statistics from a Basij militia official.
A satellite dish next to a tent of Iranian nomads
"Based on the law, the use of VPNs or other antifiltering software is forbidden and considered a crime," said Taghipour, who also said Tehran was able to counter the new antifiltering tools.
In recent years, officials in Iran have increased their warnings over the use of the Internet, an empowering tool for political activists and human rights advocates who use it to spread news about state repression.
Taghipour, speaking to Iran's semiofficial ISNA news agency, said antifiltering tools were part of what Iranian officials describe as the "soft war" being waged by Western countries against the Islamic republic.
Earlier this month, Iranian web users reported difficulties accessing their VPN accounts. State news agencies reported that officials had ordered the disabling of VPN connections.
"We have to and will take any necessary measure to confront this soft war," Taghipour told ISNA.
He also said measures had been taken to intercept banking data operations that are being conducted in Iran through VPNs.
Iranian journalist Hadi Nili says most Iranian government agencies use VPNs to ensure safe Internet connections. He says companies owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) sell VPN accounts.
Nili added the government has been targeting "safe VPN" connections that citizens are accessing through nonstate companies.
"The IRGC and the government cannot monitor those VPNs. Therefore, they want to disrupt them and limit their use. Technically it is difficult. There will always be new ways to bypass measures by the government," says Nili, who was forced to leave Iran about a year ago amid the ongoing postelection crackdown.
A 42-year-old engineer in the Iranian capital who uses a VPN to access banned websites tells "Persian Letters" he will continue browsing the web through anticensoring tools.
"We would have to stop living if we were to listen to [the Iranian authorities]. Everything is banned, according to them. The Internet is like fresh air for me. So is my satellite dish," he said.
Iranian authorities have also declared a ban on satellite dishes, which allow access to Western television channels. The ban has so far failed to stop Iranians from using them.
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