As Iran braced itself for the fourth day of protests – the largest the country has seen this decade – president Hassan Rouhani told his cabinet that Iranians can openly criticise their government. “We are a free nation and based on the Constitution and citizenship rights, people are completely free to express their criticism and even their protest,” he said, according to state-backed news channel Press TV.
On the same day, New Year’s Eve, Rouhani’s government blocked access to Telegram throughout the country. Since then Telegram has remained intermittently blocked in the country as the death toll from days of ongoing protests climbed to at least 21. Monthly, some 40 million Iranians, half of the population, use the encrypted messaging app to talk to each other away from the prying eyes of their government. Instagram and Signal were also blocked. As 2018 dawned, Iranians woke up to find themselves even more cut off from one another in a country that already ranks close to the very bottom of the pile when it comes to political rights and civil liberties.
The Iranian government is an old hand at censoring the internet, says Sanam Vakil an associate fellow at Chatham House. “It’s about preventing networking and preventing people from making meaningful connections,” she says. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and the BBC Persian service are all banned in Iran, which has one of the strictest internet censorship policies of any country in the world.
And since the Iranian government has such a tight grip on the country’s internet access, adding new sites and services to the blocked list is surprisingly easy. “All of their internet goes through internet exchanges controlled by the government, so it generally makes it a lot more straightforward to block things,” says Oliver Farnan, a cybersecurity doctoral student, at the University of Oxford in the UK.
To cut off access to a website, all the Iranian government needs to do is add the site’s IP address to their list of blocked websites. “It’s become the standard play for governments in these situations,” says Farnan. In November 2016, Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were taken offline in Turkey while leaders of Kurdish opposition were arrested and detained. During the Arab Spring, the governments of Egypt and Tunisia subjected their people to entire internet blackouts.
While it is possible to sidestep blocked websites using VPNs or Tor software that prevents internet providers from knowing which websites you are visiting, only a small number of Iranians seem to be using this technology. On Tuesday, there were around 12,000 people in Iran using some kind of Tor software says Joss Wright at the Oxford Internet Institute, a tiny proportion of the 56.7 million internet users in the country.
Even if more people were using software to access banned sites, Wright says that without a large number of people using a website, that site’s usefulness starts to dry up. “If 99 per cent of the internet can’t get to Instagram there’s not much point people accessing it at all,” he says. “You can be very effective even if you don’t block perfectly.”
Although the Iranian government has aggressively restricted its citizens’ access to websites for more than a decade, Telegram, the encrypted messaging service created by Pavel Durov has been particularly successful in Iran. The service is a cross between a normal messaging app and a social media feed, and lets people talk directly with each other or subscribe to public channels. When one of those channels started calling on subscribers to use firearms against Iranian police, Telegram took the channel offline because it violated its terms of service, but only after Iran’s ICT Minister tweeted at Durov asking him to do so.
On Wednesday, that same minister, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi, demanded that Durov starts blocking “terrorist channels” of people opposing the regime. “If Telegram[‘s] manager does not respect Iranians’ demand, the application will be closed completely,” he said, according to the state-backed news agency IRNA. Telegram did not immediately respond to our request for comment and neither Instagram nor Signal has publicly commented on the blocks.
Durov now finds himself in the tricky position of whether to make concessions to the Iranian government in order to keep the app off the banned list, or to refuse to compromise and risk having his app banned for good in the country. “It’s easy for them to be blocked,” says Farnan. “So they either have to deal with [that] or make some kind of agreement with the government.”
But much of Telegram’s strength comes from the fact that it is so popular in the country, with 25 million of Iran’s 80 million citizens using the app every day. Instagram, too, is very popular in Iran, although there are no concrete user numbers. “It’s the fact that they’ve got enough people using them that they become a significant tool,” says Wright. While there are dozens of alternatives to Telegram, none of them are as widely used and if people are forced off of one service there is no guarantee they will head to another in such large numbers.
Other social media companies facing similar bans have toyed with the idea of tweaking their services to suit the demands of authoritarian regimes. After China banned Facebook in 2009, Mark Zuckerberg experimented with technology that filtered out content the Communist Party was likely to find unacceptable. Despite this, Facebook has made little headway when it comes to getting back into China. Durov has made it clear that he doesn’t intend to take a similar approach with Telegram. “We don’t care about complying with local laws. We care only about applying our own rules fairly and equally to all public content on @telegram,” he tweeted on New year’s Eve.
Even though these apps are proving to be powerful tools for political organisation in Iran, Vikal says it’s not just protesters who are using new technology to rally people to their cause. During the recent protests the Iranian government, too, sent messages to people’s smartphones urging them not to take part in the protests. And even when the services remain unblocked, just using certain apps can be enough to attract the attention of the state. “They’ve identified individuals and gone after them having tracked them on Telegram and Instagram,” says Vakil.
Source » wired