Iran Unblocks Widely Used Messaging App Telegram After Two Weeks
It took Iranian President Hassan Rouhani nearly two weeks to lift the ban on the widely used Telegram messaging app, after it was blocked amid state-imposed internet disruption during the recent nationwide protests.
The order was issued after a session of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), which Rouhani chairs, on January 13, 2018. The council decided to maintain the block on Telegram’s voice call service.
After the ban was lifted, Iranian users complained via social media that the app was behaving very slowly.
Investigations by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) indicate that during the 24-hour period between January 13 and 14, disruptions in Telegram traffic were caused by the loss of data packets going through servers belonging to the state-owned Telecommunications Infrastructure Company of Iran.
It remains unclear whether the disruptions were intentional. The semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) speculated that the slowdown was caused by the sudden wave of Iranians trying to access the network at the same time.
Reformists in Parliament welcomed the Rouhani government’s decision to lift the ban.
“The unblocking of Telegram is a sign of Rouhani’s ability to overcome outside pressures,” reacted MP Mahmoud Sadeghi in an interview with semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) on January 14.
According to reformist MP Alireza Rahimi, “The people’s rights should not be curbed or overlooked because of security concerns.”
However, Mehdi Mohammadi, a conservative commentator for the Kayhan newspaper, strongly criticized the Rouhani government.
“Rouhani and [Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari] Jahromi are responsible for the consequences of unblocking Telegram, knowing there’s proof of the network’s role in the recent riots,” wrote Mohammadi on his Telegram channel on January 13.
Telegram Inaccessible by Iranians For Two Weeks
On December 31, 2017, access to Telegram, Instagram and a number of other apps widely used by Iranian protesters was blocked in Iran by order of the SNSC.
The ban on Instagram was lifted on January 4, 2018, but Telegram remained inaccessible for more than a week after Instagram became available.
On January 1, Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi described the block on social media apps as “temporary.” But on January 3 he suggested Telegram would only be unblocked if it agrees to ban channels blacklisted by the Iranian government.
“We have communicated with Telegram’s CEO that the network’s return to operation in Iran depends on the removal of terrorist content,” he said.
The internet and social media apps are heavily restricted and censored in Iran, with hardline state officials and security agencies viewing any form of internet freedom as a threat to the Islamic Republic.
In September 2017—after years of unsuccessful attempts by conservative officials to convince the Rouhani government to permanently block the app—the judiciary announced a lawsuit against Telegram to pressure it to move its servers to Iran.
While it remains unclear how a domestic lawsuit could affect a company owned by a Russian national based in Berlin, hardline officials banned the app during the protests under the pretense of maintaining national security.
The disruption has not only limited the flow of information into and out of the country, it has also impeded efforts by those who rely on the global internet to conduct daily work operations.
The negative economic impact of the internet disruption has resulted in politicians criticizing the order by the SNSC, which is heavily influenced by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
“We must acknowledge that messaging networks such as Telegram and Instagram have multiple uses,” wrote Parvaneh Mafi, the head of the parliamentary Sub-Committee for Electronic Industry, in ILNA on January 4.
“In addition to transmitting messages and news, today these networks are considered platforms for expanding the service industry and creating new jobs,” added the reformist member of Parliament from Tehran. “Prolonging restrictions on access will sharply reduce business revenues and take away jobs from young people.”
During a meeting with senior officials at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance, President Rouhani stated that “more than 100,000 jobs had been lost in the past week” as a result of the ban on Telegram.
“One of these networks was shut down for a few days because of the security situation in the country and now some want to take advantage of this,” he said, referring to conservative politicians who oppose freedom of expression on social media.
“You think it was very good to shut the down the network? You slept well but should it stay shut down forever?” he said. “While you were having a good sleep, 40 million people were in distress.”
Iran’s conservative judiciary, through its Taskforce to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (TDICC), has long been pressuring the Rouhani government to implement stricter censorship policies online.
In July 2017, Deputy Prosecutor General Abdolsamad Khorramabadi threatened to sue the Telecommunications Ministry for its alleged refusal to block thousands of channels on Telegram.
“For reasons known to the telecommunications minister, we have so far been lenient in our response to the ministry’s failure in carrying out judicial orders,” said Khorramabadi, who is also the TDICC’s secretary.
“From now on, if the minister does not carry out the orders, we will definitely file criminal charges against him after receiving permission from the prosecutor general and senior judicial officials,” he added.
More recently, Khorramabadi said it was illegal to unblock Instagram in Iran.
“Unfortunately, the Telecommunications Ministry has lifted the filter on this internet platform without taking into consideration national security and its massive amount of criminal content that has led to several judicial rulings against it,” he said on January 10.
“The prosecutor general’s office has warned the ministry’s officials that their action to remove the filter on Instagram is in violation of the law and judicial orders,” added Khorramabadi.
The deputy prosecutor general posted his comments on the Sorouth messaging app, which was developed in Iran under state supervision.
On January 5, 2018, the head of the judiciary’s statistics office, Hamid Shahriari, accused Telegram of being a platform for organizing unrest.
“For the past year, I have been warning about what a plague and calamity Telegram has become for our society and Islamic state,” said Shahriari in a speech at the Imam Khomeini Institute in Tehran. “The state has to come up with a plan to manage this. Of course, there are some people in the government who don’t believe in shutting down Telegram. Their excuse is that we should not interfere.”
Despite the continuing ban on Telegram, its CEO has so far refused to submit to Iran’s demands to operate in the country. Iranian officials have been particularly insistent on Telegram shutting down the Amad News channel, which feeds opposition news to hundreds of thousands of Iranian followers.
On December 30, 2017, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov banned Amad News for allegedly encouraging violence but allowed it to resume in a new channel after its admins agreed to closely follow Telegram’s content policies.
Iranians have ridiculed the state’s attempts to censor and ban social media apps. Pundits have also urged President Rouhani to lift the ban on Telegram.
“Mr. President, today is Thursday and two weeks have gone by since Telegram was blocked,” tweeted reformist political commentator and former political prisoner Isa Saharkhiz on January 11.
“There is no more unrest during the day or demonstrations at night. There’s no more anarchy or protests. Yet that damn finger has still not been lifted off of Telegram,” he said. “You are very busy so I thought I should remind you about your promises.”
President Rouhani struck a conciliatory tone in reacting for the second time to the protests on January 8 and criticized the ongoing ban.
“Some people think that the people are just asking for more money and a better economy. But do you know anyone who would be satisfied with a monthly salary while social media networks are completely cut off and the comings and goings from home are restricted and you don’t even have the right to speak? You cannot buy people’s freedom and lives with money. Why are some diverting from the truth? That is an insult to the people,” said Rouhani during a meeting with senior officials at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Finance.
“The people have demands that are economic, cultural, social and also security-related. Attention should be paid to all these demands,” he added. “If the young generation is the majority in the country, then we should take actions based on their wishes.”
At least 25 people were killed after anti-government demonstrations broke out across Iran on December 28, 2017. The protests were harshly repressed by the authorities and more than 3,700 demonstrators were arrested.