Internet Freedoms in Iran: A Game of Mouse and Cat Nearing an End

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3 mins read

By Jaqueline Ahmad

“Warning! The app you are using was not made by Telegram and is unsafe. We can only guarantee your safety if you use official Telegram apps.”

This was the message millions of Iranians received in December 2018 when they opened up Telegram on their phones. This highly popular messaging app became part and parcel of Iranian society during the last decade. At the apogee of its popularity, roughly half of the 80 million population used the app regularly, and in 2018 approximately 60 percent of the internet bandwidth was used by Telegram.

The app has a reputation of being secure and solidly encrypted, and in a country where Facebook, Snapchat and many other social media sites are blocked, Telegram became a popular way of hanging out in cyberspace. Unlike Whatsapp, Telegram users can engage with each other without revealing their phone numbers, and the channel and stickers functions add a fun flavor.

In 2016 the theocratic regime urged Telegram’s founder and CEO Pavel Durov to move Telegram servers to Iran. The app is mostly end-to-server encrypted (which means that someone with access to the server could potentially read the messages, as opposed to end-to-end encryption where they can only be decoded on the sending and receiving device). Many feared that a server transfer would endanger the Iranian users’ personal data.

In July 2017, Durov denied claims from the ministry of information and communication technology that Telegram had acquiesced to their demand: “There’s a weird rumor being spread in Iran about Telegram moving servers there. The idea of a privacy-oriented messaging app like Telegram moving its servers to a country with a history of Internet censorship is absurd and is hardly worth commenting on […] We’d rather lose a big market (like we did in China) than compromise a single byte of private data of our users […]”.

In December 2017 Telegram and other applications were blocked as a measure to quell the countrywide protests against corruption and injustice. Access to the app was restored after two weeks but was permanently reimposed in April 2018. Simultaneously, two copycat versions of the application appeared on the Iranian app store Cafe Bazaar, called “Hotgram” and “Golden Telegram”. These apps were not blocked and had some 30 million users in July 2018.

So whence the ominous warning message? Since Telegram provides an open and free application programming interface, anyone can create a client version of the app. Users of Hotgram and Golden Telegram were able to communicate with any Telegram user through the app, the problem was that the servers of the cloned versions were located on Iranian soil – probably in the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology. Any correspondence to or from one of the corrupted apps could be monitored.

Fereshteh has lived in a European country for several years. She uses Telegram occasionally to communicate with friends outside Iran, but not for contact with family within the Islamic Republic.

–          Everyone has shifted to WhatsApp and Instagram now, but we are still cautious about what we say on those apps. If you want to use Telegram, you need to activate a VPN*, which is very cumbersome and slows your phone down a lot. It’s simply easier to use an app that is not blocked.

The former president Hassan Rouhani stepped down in August this year. Despite pledges to increase people’s freedom online, the list of banned sites and applications in Iran only grew longer during his eight years in office. One thing improved though, according to Fereshteh:

–          Eight years ago, the internet speed was really slow! Now it’s reached a decent level and you can actually stream movies through Limoonamad, which is like Netflix here.

The regime has pursued a policy of trying to nudge its citizens to use domestic websites instead of foreign, increasing the internet speed for those sites. Nevertheless, Iran is still technically connected to the World Wide Web, but that might change.

–          The parliament passed a new law during the summer which will make Iran more like China, with our own internal internet and limited access to the outside world. We don’t know how long it will take them, maybe one more year or more, but it will be really bad, and there will be an eight months prison-sentence for people who try to circumvent the new regulations.  

Fereshteh’s real name is something else

Factbox:

VPN: Virtual private network, is a program that encrypts your data and may allow you to access data that is available in other places, to the detriment of internet speed. Iranians’ phones are often filled with dozens of VPNs as backups so that when one cannot be used, they have more in reserve.  

Cover: Elif Özlem Aydeniz

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