May 1, 2018–The Iranian Judiciary has ordered internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to the country’s most used messaging app, Telegram, in an attempt to thwart an estimated 40 million Iranians’ open access to information.
“Iran’s blocking of Telegram is another example of the state’s blatant hostility toward freedom of speech and a futile attempt to block the free flow of information,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).
“The condemnation of Iran’s violations of these basic rights is an international imperative, as is the need to make the full range of personal communications and circumvention tools available to the people of Iran,” added Ghaemi.
On April 30, 2018, the Iranian Judiciary’s news site reported that Branch 2 of the Culture and Media Prosecutor’s Office in Tehran had ordered all ISPs and the Telecommunications Ministry, which operates under President Hassan Rouhani, to “prevent access to content on the [Telegram] network with any kind of software, including circumvention tools.”
The order warned that any providers in violation would be prosecuted.
As of the early morning hours of May 1 in Iran, Telegram was only accessible via online circumvention tools in most provinces throughout the country.
The order to block Telegram came after months of unsuccessful pressure on the company by the Iranian Judiciary and state officials to move its servers to Iran and comply with Iranian censorship policies. Hostility to Telegram also increased after the messaging app was used by many of the protestors during the unrest that broke out across Iran in December 2017 to spread word of the street gatherings.
The move also reflects a desire by hardliners to demonstrate their domestic dominance—and Rouhani’s powerlessness to stop the bans on social media that he publicly states he opposes.
“Blocking Telegram is a victory for hardliners who humiliated Rouhani in front of the millions of voters he promised over and over again that he would not allow messaging apps like Telegram to be blocked,” said Ghaemi.
The Telegram ban follows successive moves by the authorities during April to erode use of the app in Iran. The Ministry of Education issued a directive banning the use of foreign-made messaging apps at public schools, all executive branch agencies were ordered to stop using foreign messaging apps for official business, and Iran’s Supreme Cyberspace Council (SCC) ordered Telegram removed from Iran’s CDNs, (caching servers that allow faster delivery of multimedia data).
With Telegram now completely banned, the authorities hope Iranians will use domestic messaging apps instead, but the citizenry have showed little appetite for domestic versions which they know the state can access and monitor.
“The state’s routine violation of privacy rights via covert state surveillance of online communications has created a culture of deep-seated distrust for state-approved apps,” said Ghaemi.
On December 31, 2017, Telegram was blocked for two weeks during the nationwide protests. But instead of flocking to domestic messaging apps, “30 million” people used circumvention tools—such as virtual private networks (VPNs) that enable users to access blocked sites—to continue to use Telegram, according to Member of Parliament (MP) Mahmoud Sadeghi.
President Rouhani said at the time that more than 100,000 people had lost their jobs as a result of the ban, reflecting the extent to which Telegram has become deeply embedded in the social and economic fabric of the country.
Facebook and Twitter are also banned in Iran. Despite this, dozens of state officials use these apps to reach domestic and foreign audiences, sometimes maintaining accounts in multiple languages including English, Farsi and Arabic. Iranians meanwhile, use online circumvention tools to access the apps. However, no social media platform has achieved the reach of Telegram in Iran.
“Iran is a country filled with young, tech savvy people who have proven that they won’t be silenced or subdued by state bans on anything,” said Ghaemi.
“The only thing Iran has achieved by blocking Telegram is revealing its fear of its own people being able to freely access information and communicate,” he added.
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