Iran’s Telegram Ban Reveals New Authority By Judiciary to Directly Order Online Content to Blocked
Iran’s ban on the widely used Telegram messaging app has revealed a new state tactic for blocking access to or “filtering” online and digital content in the country: by order of the judiciary.
Telegram, used by an estimated 40 million Iranians, was blocked by order of an assistant prosecutor on April 30, 2018. This was unusual because online content in Iran was previously banned by the legal authority of the institutions in charge of censorship, such as the Working Group to Determine Instances of Criminal Content (WDICC).
But the latest ban has revealed that the judiciary now has the same authority.
Before the ban, the principle body in charge of censoring and filtering online content was the WDICC, whose members, including security and media organizations, include representatives from the three branches of state.
The members would meet to rule on censorship and filtering requests and their decisions would be enforced by government agencies such as the Telecommunications Infrastructure Company (TIC).
The TIC’s board members include six cabinet ministers alongside officials from the judiciary and security agencies, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or Intelligence Ministry. But the ban on Telegram has revealed that the TIC’s authority has been eclipsed.
An investigation by the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) has found that since May 6, 2018, Iranian mobile phone operators and internet service providers (ISP) have changed their filtering system, enabling them to directly block requests to access Telegram before they reach the TIC, the country’s primary network carrier.
Previously, when someone tried to access an app like Telegram in Iran, mobile phone operators or ISPs would send that request to the TIC because it had exclusive control of the gateway that sends and receives online data in Iran.
The access requests would go through the TIC to reach the app’s servers and their responses would come back through the TIC to the mobile phone operators or ISPs and finally to individual subscribers in Iran.
Filtering can take place at two points during this process. The data could be blocked by the TIC on its way out of the country—and this was how Telegram’s phone service was blocked in Iran. But as of May 6, mobile phone operators or ISPs can filter the content directly without the involvement of the TIC.
Has Iran’s Ban on Telegram Been Effective?
In early May 2018, shortly after the ban on Telegram was implemented, conservative Iranian officials immediately argued that it had been successful.
Gholamali Jafarzadeh Imanabadi, a hardline lawmaker, said on May 8, “After Telegram was filtered, one million of its 45 million Iranian members deleted the application.”
“Posting content on Telegram [among users in Iran] has dropped 40 percent and content views decreased 50 percent,” he added.
Because Telegram has not released figures on the impact of the ban on its service in Iran, Imanabadi’s evaluation is likely based on traffic data inside Iran. But that information is inaccurate because of the widespread use of virtual private networks, or VPNs, which encrypt and hide data and therefore make it difficult or impossible to trace.
On the other hand, some Iranian users have pointed out that the internet as a whole has been negatively impacted by the ban on Telegram.
Mahdi Taghizadeh, a co-founder of the Iranian company Delion Foods, tweeted on May 7, “In order to filter Telegram, they have messed up the internet in the entire country. In fact, now the only thing that works is Telegram but our whole business and livelihood have been wasted.”
In response to the complaints, the Radio Regulations and Communications Organization, an Iranian governmental body, issue a statement on May 7 arguing that the ban on one social messenger should not disrupt access to the rest of the internet.
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.
Hardliners’ 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 Iranian President Rouhani’s powerlessness to stop the bans on social media that he publicly states he opposes.
On May 11, eight internet freedom organizations including CHRI called on the Rouhani administration to challenge the order and the judiciary to revoke the ban and end its violations of freedom of expression rights.
On May 7, six lawyers in Iran filed a petition at the Court for Government Employees in Tehran to overturn the judicial order, arguing that it’s unconstitutional.