Iran bans Telegram messaging app as civil unrest grows

1 May 2018

Telegram on desktop. Image: Larich/Shutterstock

Internet service providers in Iran have been ordered to block access to Telegram.

It has only been a few weeks since encrypted messaging app Telegram was blocked in Russia, and now the Iranian judiciary has banned the service, citing concerns for national security.

About 40m people in Iran use the service.

Public anger grows

Reuters reported that the ban had been under consideration since January of this year, following a series of protests in cities across the country, which escalated into demonstrations against the Islamic Republic elites and clerics.

According to AP, 25 people died and 5,000 were arrested during the protests in December 2017 and early 2018. The app was temporarily shut down at this time, but users were able to use VPNs to work around the obstacles.

Russian authorities banned the service after Telegram refused to hand over encryption keys to allegedly be used in counterterrorism efforts. In Iran, Telegram was apparently used to spread “propaganda against the establishment, terrorist activities, spreading lies to incite public opinion, anti-government protests and pornography”, according to Mizan.

State television in Iran reported: “Considering various complaints against the Telegram social networking app by Iranian citizens, and based on the demand of security organisations to confront the illegal activities of Telegram, the judiciary has banned its usage in Iran.”

Telegram is out of bounds

The Tehran prosecutor ordered that both the mobile and desktop versions of the app are to be blocked in such a way that the use of a VPN would be ineffective.

The Iranian government said that Telegram and other foreign messaging apps could obtain operating licences in the country if they transferred their databases into that region, but privacy advocates are wary this could make state surveillance much easier.

There is an alternative app in Iran called Soroush, which has most of the same features, but domestic apps are more likely to be used for surveillance purposes, privacy experts say.

Authorities in Iran are keen to put a lid on any anti-government unrest, particularly if US president Donald Trump decides not to extend US sanctions relief to the country on 12 May – a deadline set by him for European signatories of a deal with Iran in 2015 to “fix the terrible flaws” of the agreement.

Activists in Iran are finding novel ways to battle government censorship and spread protests across the country, even without the use of Telegram. Messages are even being written on banknotes and spread throughout the country.

The international sanctions imposed on Iran have hurt its economy, and protests that began as a response to this have quickly turned to calls for Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to step down.

Telegram on desktop. Image: Larich/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects