Why Iran wants to block Telegram?
It was about 5 years ago that Iranians began to use the messaging app, Telegram, currently the preferred social media platform across the country.
Telegram is particularly popular in Iran because of the service it offers: unlike WhatsApp, for example, which enables communication between individuals and groups of up to 256 people, Telegram allows users to broadcast messages to large audiences of unlimited size, via “channels”. This is one of the functions made possible by Telegram’s application programming interface (API). Further functions include the ability to share large files, carry out secret chats and create chat bots.
With more than 40 million active users in Iran, the app is both a means for friends to stay in touch and a platform for business communication, with adverts across popular telegram channels for rugs or used cars. The platform is fast, easy and more secure than Iran’s telecommunications’ services, such as SMS.
Since day one, many activists and internet security researchers have been concerned about whether Telegram is perhaps collaborating with the Iranian Government. They have been challenging Telegram’s claim to end-to-end encryption, questioning what is done with user data. These concerns led to news that Telegram had launched its own content delivery networks (CDNs) in Iran. Telegram has attempted to address each of these concerns on many occasions, but users continue to worry.
Between December 2017 and January 2018, a period which saw the largest demonstrations in the country since the 1979 Revolution, The Iranian Government tried hard to censor social media and internet platforms, including Telegram.
Telegram played a central role in these demonstrations. In a very short time, the channel “AmadNews”, which posted updates on demonstrations across the country, gained more than one million followers. This was a wake-up call for the Rouhani administration
Iranian Twitter users have started to question these developments, asking Pavel Durov (CEO of Telegram) why Telegram deleted the channel without providing any notice.
After a while, Telegram reinstated the procedure of proving a warning or a period of notice prior to removing channels from the platform.
Since then, Telegram has been a significant point of discussion among Iranian officials, who have argued to block the platform, claiming that it does not collaborate with the Government as it should. Since September 4th, 2017, Iran has been crawling all Iranian Telegram channels and closely monitoring their activities. The Government maintains an overview of important statistics across the platform, monitoring the number of views reached by the most popular channels, as well as the number of persian speaking channels that exist, and the times of day that users are most active. Data collected through the Government’s monitoring of the platform was initially published on the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (www.Majazi.ir). While the website is no longer up-to-date, it provides an insight into the data that is- presumably still- being collected by the Iranian Government. According to the last available figures, Iran appeared to be monitoring approximately one million Telegram channels.
Current statements by Government officials indicate that Iran would like to have access to or control over what Iranian users are publishing on the platform. Seeing as Telegram is not willing to collaborate as the administration would like, Iran has begun to advertise and promote domestic alternatives to Telegram. Some of the apps have been created privately in Iran, while others were founded by the Iranian Government, but have not been officially labelled as such.
The following is a list of Iranian Government-sponsored apps, according to officials:
- Wispi app
But why are users not active on these platforms as they are on Telegram?
Facts you should know about how Iranians use social media messaging apps:
1Iranian people do not trust their Government with private information.
2 — The platforms listed above do not provide any sort of encryption, and are therefore less secure than Telegram, which provides basic/normal encryption.
3 — Even if an app itself is secure, the Iranian Government will demand the provider to deliver a back-door option for them.
Many internet researchers believe that if Hassan Rouhani decided to block Telegram it would put a lot of pressure on people who use the platform for business purposes, many of whom are young entrepreneurs, trying to make a living on the platform. As much of the young generation is already well versed in the use of internet circumvention tools, any such attempt by the Government to restrict this platform would most likely lead to users implementing their regular proxy-work-around to access their preferred messaging app. In addition, the cost of blocking Telegram in Iran would be enormous for the Iranian Government, which is already bearing the brunt of numerous economic sanctions.
So the question remains:
— is the Government’s next step really going to be censorship of Telegram? Could their desire to control the flow of information in the country have a boomerang effect and cause an increase in the current number of proxy users in the country?