Official Admits to “Defeated” Attempt to Move Iranians Over to State-Sponsored Messaging Apps
One year after Iran blocked access to the Telegram messaging app, used by a reported 40 million users, officials are admitting that the state’s attempts to attract users to Iranian-made versions have failed.
“Today I can say with certainty that our domestic messengers have been defeated because they were not welcomed,” said Hamid Fatehi, a deputy minister at the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology (Telecommunications Ministry), during a speech at a technology conference in Tehran on April 6, 2019.
“Perhaps the most important reason was that it coincided with filtering [blocking access to] Telegram and people got the impression that Telegram was filtered in order to attract them towards domestic messengers,” he added.
Previously, Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi had speculated that Iranian-made messaging apps are unpopular due to their perceived lack of user security features.
“Unfortunately, because of the poisonous propaganda against domestic apps, they are not completely trusted,” Azari Jahromi said in an interview on a state-funded television channel in April 2018. “People think their privacy will be compromised if they use them.”
Iranian security agencies and state-sponsored hackers have a documented history of hacking into people’s personal online accounts, including social media and emails, to monitor communications and crack down on organized dissent.
Iranians are accordingly wary of apps that keep their servers in Iran, where the government can easily access them.
The absence of watchdog institutions, lack of legal safeguards to protect users’ private information, and the power security and intelligence agencies hold over the judiciary have added to the distrust.
Iranian Messaging Apps Fail to Gain Popularity Despite Government Support
The launch of Iran’s National Information Network (NIN) internet service, which systematically filters keywords and phrases and sends users to sites that offer state-approved and sometimes fabricated content, was preceded by a push within the Rouhani government to support the growth of domestic companies focused on developing messaging apps that could replace non-Iranian versions.
As part of this push, the Supreme Cyberspace Council reduced the data costs of accessing them via mobile phones to that of a third of non-Iranian ones in January 2018.
Iranian officials have not released any figures on how many people have subscribed to domestic messaging apps since Telegram was banned in May 2018, but domestic media reports indicate a large number of state funds have gone into their development.
“So far, three Iranian messaging apps [Soroush, Bisphone, and Gap] have each received five billion tomans [$1.2 million USD] in [government] loans,” the Iranian technology news site Digiato reported in April 2018.
On May 6, 2019, Member of Parliament Nasrollah Pejmanfar said President Hassan Rouhani’s government had spent 400 billion tomans ($94.9 million USD) on Telegram Talaeii and Hotgram, two Iranian-made Telegram clone apps that have been flagged as unsafe by Telegram and Google.
Pejmanfar also confirmed reports that the apps were developed under the supervision of the Intelligence Ministry and the Telecommunications Ministry, which operate under President Hassan Rouhani.
“Telegram Talaeii and Hotgram were launched under the supervision of intelligence and telecommunications ministries and in addition to statements by the authorities, I have a lot of evidence that proves this relationship,” he added.