By Eleanor Beevor
The Telegram messaging app has had a rough few weeks. In mid-April, Russia banned the app after founder Pavel Durov refused to give up decryption keys that would have allowed the government to access selected messages.
Durov’s defence of user privacy was praised by privacy activists including Edward Snowden, although it did little good for the app. Russia has now begun blocking Telegram’s IP (Internet Protocol) addresses in order to crack down on its use. And shortly after the Russian push, it looked like Iran was going to follow suit.
Iranian officials have long mistrusted Telegram. It can serve as both a conventional messaging app, but users can also create channels that give them a one-way communication platform. And Telegram was marketed as the most secure app for those concerned for their privacy - an essential feature for the politically-minded in the tightly controlled space for expression in Iran.
By 2017, in the run-up to the general election, it appeared that the government was getting ready to push back on that space. New regulations appeared, demanding that those running Telegram channels with over 5000 subscribers identify themselves, and allow an automated bot to access the channel.
‘Terrorist app of choice’
True, Telegram is famous for having some unsavoury fan bases - it is the “terrorist’s app of choice”, and is famous for its extensive use by ISIS. As a result, it’s easy for officials to make the case that the app is a security threat, and that further measures - or possibly an outright ban - is needed.
In recent weeks that is exactly what Iranian officials have done. In early April the head of Iran’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, announced that the app would be blocked by April 20th, given its apparent use in the mass protests in January over economic conditions.
A variety of other professed reasons for a ban followed. The Secretary for Iran’s Iran's High Council for Cyberspace, Hassan Firouzabadi, said that Telegram was developing an undesirable monopoly over social media in the country. There was also nervousness around Telegram’s Initial Coin Offering (ICO). (An ICO is effectively an appeal for crowdfunding investment for a new crypto-currency.
Telegram plans to start its own currency to use on the app, and was offering prospective investors tokens in exchange for their investment, which could be used when the crypto-currency was active). Firouzabadi said that this risked undermining Iran’s national currency, given the dominance of Telegram in Iran.
Telegram part of the ‘crypto-currency’ as claimed (Shutterstock)
In terms of that dominance of Telegram, Firouzabadi is not wrong. It is hard to overstate how much the app filters into daily life in Iran, but a few statistics can help paint a picture. It is estimated that 50 million Iranians use Telegram, (over half the population), and that Iranians make up 25% of Telegram’s total user base. And Telegram is responsible for 40% of Iran’s total internet traffic.
In some ways, this is a monopoly that the government had a hand in making. Facebook and Twitter are technically banned, although senior officials including Ayatollah Khamenei have Twitter accounts. The same is true for most other foreign-owned social media platforms. (Iranians often access these anyway, and many ordinary people are well-versed in using VPNs to circumvent the bans.)
The Iranian Ayatollah has a twitter account in a country were social media is frowned upon (Twitter).
Bells and whistles
Despite creeping restrictions, Telegram endured, and there are plenty of reasons for its popularity. Niki Akhavan, a Professor of Media and Communication Studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington D.C., and an expert in Iranian use of social media, told Al Bawaba:
“Telegram has enough bells and whistles to make it attractive and fun to use - stickers, voice and video chats etc. - but it is also very easy to get a hang of it.
The fun and ease feature, as well as the fact that its use was largely unimpeded by authorities until recently, help explain why it came to dominate the social scene since 2014. Since that time, it has been put to diverse uses by Iranians of all stripes and ages: this includes closed family groups, individual chats, commercial activity, and political channels, including by high ranking officials.”
However, for those who wished to talk politics, Telegram’s really indispensable feature was its claim to privacy. Whether Telegram is really more secure than its competitors that offer end-to-end encrypted messaging, such as WhatsApp, is debatable.
Nonetheless, Telegram markets itself primarily on its messaging security, and it seems that both the Iranian people and their government generally see it as the easiest secure option. For some factions of Iran’s government, however, this is no longer an acceptable state of affairs. Babak Rahimi, an expert in Iranian cultural studies at the University of California, San Diego, told Al Bawaba:
“The December and January uprisings once again showed the partial role Telegram played in capturing the state imagination (or rather paranoia) of foreign influence via social media applications.”
Fear of foreign influence
This fear of foreign interference is particularly powerful in Iranian politics around the time of elections. The second victory of the reformist-minded President Hassan Rouhani in 2017 was a shock to Iran’s conservatives. Conservative influences overwhelmingly control traditional media in the country, and in their eyes, it must therefore be social media that was responsible for Rouhani’s victory.
No doubt there was more to the election result than social media, but it is true that Telegram is a critically important tool for Rouhani. His vast Telegram channel gives him a direct communication platform to reach potential voters, and it allows him to even out the media playing field.
In Iran, this still matters after an election has been won. The fractured control of the state means that the President must still compete with the interests of powerful groups, many of whom are not keen on his more reformist ideas. And it is thus no surprise that Rouhani himself has been active in pushing back the proposed Telegram ban.
No need to ban Telegram
Rouhani has argued that there is no need to ban Telegram in order to prevent it having a monopoly, or to promote Iranian apps, something that the government has been attempting for a while. Babak Rahimi added:
“The idea of replacing foreign new media technologies, including Telegram, for a domestically produced technologies has been in the works for years. Iran is following the Chinese model to initiate its own Internet and mobile domain, but so far it has been unsuccessful...but not completely.”
Iran is now doing its best to promote an alternative domestically-developed app, Soroush. Ayatollah Khamenei and a number of senior officials have deleted their Telegram channels and set up new ones on Soroush to encourage users to transfer their loyalties. The app has quirky add-ons as well, including “Death to America” emojis.
However, despite assurances from officials that privacy will be protected on Soroush, many Iranians remain skeptical. When a message has been read by the receiver on Soroush, three ticks appear rather than the two ticks seen on WhatsApp or Telegram. A regular joke among Iranians at the moment is that the third tick shows that an intelligence officer has also read the message.
Thus if Rouhani’s lobbying to protect Telegram remain successful, then an increase in use of Soroush may not significantly dent Telegram’s user base. And even if it is banned, young Iranians are good at finding their way around internet restrictions – in all likelihood they will do it again.
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