On the afternoon on April 20, with a few strokes of a pen, nearly half of all of Iran’s internet traffic suddenly became illegal. Iran’s judiciary had declared Telegram, a messaging service used by many to circumvent state media censors, a threat to national security and a de facto enemy of the state.
A new report released by the Center for Humans Rights in Iran on Tuesday details how the ban has impacted Iran, and sheds light on the need for secure messaging systems to combat authoritarian regimes bent on censorship and online surveillance. Iran’s ban came just weeks after a similar attack on Telegram by the Russian government, signaling a trend for digital rights that’s troubling to say the least.
According to Center for Human Rights in Iran deputy director Omid Memarian, who spoke to Select All over the phone, “For many Iranians, Telegram is the internet.” Over 40 million people, about half of Iran’s total population, used Telegram before the government deemed it unlawful. According to the report, Iranians from many different social and ethnic groups relied on Telegram’s encrypted messaging ability to communicate with friends and family, organize, and even sell goods and services with less fear of government retaliation. Based on the Iranian government’s own calculations, Telegram use accounted for over half of all of Iran’s bandwidth preceding the block. Ironically, even Iran’s foremost governmental figure, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, used Telegram.
At some point, the service had grown nearly too big to check. In the words of Memarian, Telegram had “spread like a cancer.”
Secure messaging apps like Telegram work by encrypting messages at communication end points — in other words, your device and the device of the person you are messaging — so that even if a spying government intercepts your messages, they’d be unreadable. For most Americans and Western Europeans, end-to-end encryption has become the norm and not the exception, with popular messaging services like iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and WhatsApp all offering the technology to varying degrees. In places like Iran, where state censors heavily restrict access to Western websites and content deemed “immoral” or harmful to the government, Telegram plays a much bigger role. (It’s worth pointing out that despite Telegram’s wide use, many security experts have criticized Telegram as unsecured since it does not encrypt messages by default.)
But it wasn’t just the encryption that made the Iranian government nervous. Memarian said that Telegram’s Channels feature in particular, which allows news outlets the ability to post content to subscribers, is an especially important aspect of Telegram. These channels offer large swaths of Iranians access to otherwise blocked news sites like the BBC, which shares links to news on its pages. For many of the millions who used Telegram to regularly access these channels, the block was shocking. “For the first time, a large portion of people tasted what true censorship felt like,” Memarian said.
Following the block, the Iranian government has encouraged homegrown messaging services. Some, like Soroush, offer many of the same surface-level features as Telegram, but are confined by the chains of state sensors’ demands. Critics worry that Soroush’s close ties to the Iranian government will inevitably lead to state monitoring, so enrollment is weak.
If the Iranian government’s end goal for the ban was to drive hordes of users off Telegram and onto their own monitored platforms, then the result has been a big, fat failure. Telegram, which originated out of Russia, can circumvent Iran’s censorship apparatus to some extent, since its servers are hosted outside of the country. (Despite numerous demands by the Iranian government for Telegram to move its servers to Iran, the company objected, further fueling citizen support for the app.) According to the report, while the ban did show an initial retreat from Telegram, the number of users finding ways around the ban — using virtual private networks, for example — has restored Telegram’s base to near pre-ban metrics. If anything, Memarian said the ban has affirmed many Iranians’ suspicions that their government views them as a threat to be monitored.
Still, the ban has likely had a stifling effect. Telegram’s intuitive, easy-to-use functionality was a key component of its popularity, and less technologically savvy users may be dissuaded from jumping the hurdles necessary to install and update VPNs. Worse still, some of Iran’s poorest citizens access the internet solely through their mobile device, which proves even trickier to equip with circumvention tools.
A Troubling Trend of Blocks
The Iranian ban comes on the heels of a similar ban by another nation state known for its own abusive censorship: Russia. In early April, Russian courts followed through on a threat to block access to Telegram after the company refused to hand over decryption keys. Russian authorities have repeatedly accused Telegram of abetting terrorist activity. The Russian block led to multiple large-scale protests organized by Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov, a cat-and-mouse series of ban circumventions, and even the arrest of Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina.
Last month, Telegram’s founder accused Apple, a leading internet gatekeeper, of siding with the Russian authorities by refusing to allow the apps software to update. Durov directed his criticism at Apple on his Telegram channel, saying, “Apple has been preventing Telegram from updating its iOS apps globally ever since the Russian authorities ordered Apple to remove Telegram from the App Store.”
While Iranian and Russian attacks on Telegram may seem extreme, the United States, too, has its own dodgy relationship with encryption. It’s worth noting that up until the late 1990s, basic encryption technology could be found on the U.S. munitions export list alongside Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and other death dealers. While the U.S. has since removed most encryption from the munitions list, another more recent example where the FBI has allegedly asked Telegram founder for a backdoor to gain access to Telegram is uncomfortably similar to the Russian government’s call for encryption keys.
Both the Iranian and Russian examples have shown that motivated seekers of information will find ways to circumvent state censorship one way or another. Those less technically inclined who fall by the wayside as a result of these bans, however, weaken privacy for everyone. Erica Portnoy, who has worked on secure messaging for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, commented on this over the phone with Select All, comparing secure encryption to a vaccine.
Encryption “is important for the people who need it, but it’s also important to people who aren’t exposed because of this idea of herd immunity,” Portnoy said. “So when everyone is using the app, the fact that you are using the app at all is not an indicator that you are someone the government might be interested in watching. So it is safer for the people who might be trying to do any sort of activism or journalism if everyone communicating is using the same software.”