Upholding Internet Freedom as Part of the EU’s Iran Policy

By Cornelius Adebahr and Barbara Mittelhammer - 05 March 2024
Upholding Internet Freedom as Part of the EU’s Iran Policy

Iran’s regime is using digital repression to control the country’s citizens and further isolate them from the world. The EU should ensure safe online spaces for Iranian activists and tie its Iran policy into a comprehensive global strategy against digital authoritarianism.

Why is the Issue so Important?

Cracking down on internet access and digital rights has been an integral part of the Iranian regime’s violent repression of the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. Since fall 2022, regular internet shutdowns have become a new normal; in Sistan and Baluchestan Province, they have occurred every single Friday for fourteen consecutive months. This clampdown is part of a much larger pattern under which the Iranian authorities have worked toward a national information network by centralizing Iran’s internet infrastructure over the past two decades.

Beyond impediments like surveillance, the throttling of bandwidth to inhibit traffic, the censorship of web pages or services, and occasional complete shutdowns of mobile data or the internet, the state’s monopolization of internet infrastructure has led to the digital isolation of Iranians and near-total governmental control. These measures severely infringe Iranians’ human rights, inhibiting them from communicating and interacting socially, politically, and economically with each other and with the international community. In response, the EU’s strategic interest lies in mitigating censorship and enabling access to information, especially for civil society.

Priority Actions

  1. European policymakers should better understand Iran’s digital ecosystem. EU decisionmakers need to grasp the buildup of Iran’s national intranet to devise effective policies in the digital realm. The Iranian government controls the main gateways for all privately operated internet service providers to enter the World Wide Web, for example through the dominant position of the state-run Telecommunication Infrastructure Company or through the government’s ownership and administration of the .ir top-level domain. This control increases the role of virtual private networks (VPNs) as tools not only to access non-Iranian web pages but also to circumvent digital repression. The European Commission should therefore invest in research on Iran’s censorship infrastructure and compare this with that of other authoritarian regimes. Regular secure exchanges between EU officials and online activists, including the internet freedom community in Iran, are needed to ensure that EU decisions are made on solid information grounds. These exchanges should include civil society expertise in the due diligence for new and existing sanctions, so that EU measures do not unintentionally harm tech-savvy users in Iran in finding workarounds to bypass the regime’s internet blockade.
  2. The European Commission should integrate digital security into its programming. Given the benefits of VPNs for circumventing censorship and of decentralized, peer-to-peer and next-generation solutions for countering internet shutdowns, these tools are critical for civil society activities in Iran. Through its programs and in cooperation with diaspora-based civil society organizations, the commission should provide free and safe access to such technologies, for example in collaboration with platforms like Paskoocheh. In addition to VPNs, this access should include decentralized solutions such as Tor and its Snowflake extension, which help bypass censorship and allow users in third countries to offer bandwidth and anonymity to those behind virtual walls. The commission should also fund online training and campaigns to promote digital security practices, such as the use of circumvention tools, for activists, journalists, and civil society groups in Iran. This offering should include accessible resources in Persian, for instance through the Filter.Watch platform, which provides online tools for journalists and open internet advocates in Iran and the wider Middle East. Moreover, informing users outside Iran about simple ways to support internet access elsewhere should be a part of civil society training in the EU.
  3. EU member states should create digital safe spaces for activists. While the EU cannot directly—or physically—protect women and human rights activists in Iran, it can and should do more on its own turf. This ranges from sanctioning high-ranking Iranian officials responsible for internet shutdowns and international companies that supply Iran with surveillance and censorship equipment to monitoring the safety of diaspora-based actors. Iran has increasingly carried out cyber attacks against activists, journalists, and women human rights defenders outside the country, using European technological infrastructure to do so. The EU Council and the commission should coordinate the relevant authorities in EU member states to take appropriate measures, like introducing a digital security hotline for affected users to report incidents. Based on the information provided in this way and by identifying patterns of cyber attacks, member states should strengthen their own cybersecurity to prevent the misuse of their internet infrastructures. The commission should work with EU-based cloud providers to offer secure services and alternative payment channels for civic activists. When the EU relies on civil society expertise, for example to document the regime’s human rights violations, the union needs to uphold high security standards to ensure safe and anonymous information referral pathways.
  4. The EU should relate its Iran policy to a comprehensive, global strategy against digital repression. EU measures to counter Iranian digital repression should be part of a broader European approach. Authoritarian countries, including China, Iran, and Russia, collaborate closely and develop their repressive repertoires both online and offline. Instead of reacting on a tactical country-by-country basis, EU policymakers should respond strategically and from a thematic and global perspective. The commission should integrate protective and preventive measures, as well as research, reporting, and monitoring of Iran’s digital repression tactics, into its other thematic programs, such as its research and programming on digital security in the Directorate General for Communications Networks, Content, and Technology (DG Connect). The commission should also increase its funding and research structures to enable a global internet freedom fund that supports circumvention tools and technologies. EU member states, meanwhile, should advocate for an extended mandate for the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Iran, established to investigate the mass repression of the Woman, Life, Freedom revolt. The mission’s report is due in March 2024, but under an expanded mandate, it could examine the scope and gravity of human rights violations in the digital sphere and propose accountability measures. Finally, EU and member states’ representatives should consistently call out Iran’s and other authoritarian states’ actions against internet freedom and digital rights in global forums, including specialized organizations such as the International Telecommunication Union.


Digital repression by the Iranian authorities goes far beyond the infringement of internet access and individual rights. Instead, the regime is pursuing a strategic plan to advance and continue its digital repression and control to further isolate the country’s citizens from the world. So far, the EU’s response has not been commensurate with the scope of such actions and the urgency of their implications—even though it is in the union’s interest both to realize Iranians’ digital rights and to prevent authoritarian regimes worldwide from strengthening their repressive capacities.



Cornelius Adebahr is a political analyst and consultant living in Berlin, Germany. His work focuses on European foreign policy issues, transatlantic relations, and Iran. 

Barbara Mittelhammer is an independent political analyst and consultant. Her research focuses on human security, gender in peace and security, feminist foreign policy, and the role of civil society in foreign policy making.

This first appeared on Carnegie Europe and was reposted with permission of the author.

Photo by Pixabay



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