Iran blocked the popular messaging app Telegram, which many Iranians use to communicate, during ongoing nationwide protests. This prompted an outcry (Time) from the international community, though some experts warned of overplaying the role of technology in the unrest. WikiTribune looks at the significance of Telegram in Iran, and the broader uses and constraints of digital messaging tools for mobilizing social movements.
Telegram first came under fire when Iranian telecommunications minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi tweeted at Telegram Messenger CEO Pavel Durov on December 30, urging him to shut down the channel AmadNews, claiming that it was being used to encourage violence. (Read more of our coverage of Iran here.)
@Durov: A Telegram channel is encouraging hateful conduct, use of Molotov cocktails, armed uprising, and social unrest. NOW is the time to stop such encouragements via Telegram.
— MJ Azari Jahromi (@azarijahromi) December 30, 2017
Durov complied, tweeting: “A Telegram channel (amadnews) started to instruct their subscribers to use Molotov cocktails against police and got suspended due to our ‘no calls for violence’ rule.”
Digital rights activists, including U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden, criticized the move, raising issue with Telegram having censorable public channels while promoting itself as secure.
Many don't seem to understand why I object to @Telegram having unsafe, censorable public channels in an app that is promoted as a secure messenger. Some presumed I just don't understand how channels work. So let's talk about it:
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) December 30, 2017
Apparently still not satisfied, on December 31 the government placed a “temporary” restriction on Telegram and Instagram.
Durov wrote in a statement that the restriction was imposed because the company refused to shut down “channels of peaceful Iranian protesters.” Quoting telecommunications minister Jahromi, Iranian state-news agency IRNA reported that if Telegram did not “respect Iranians’ demand, the application will be closed completely.”
Iran is experiencing its largest nationwide protests since the Green Movement of 2009, when millions demonstrated over disputed presidential election results.
In 2009, Twitter played a role in broadcasting what was happening to the world. During the current protests, Iranians have relied mostly on Telegram to communicate.
The current protests began on December 28 and were initially focused on economic hardship around the country. The protests took a political turn, with some calling for the overthrow of the ruling regime.
Many chanted against the Islamic Republic and demanded a stop to hawkish interventions in countries such as Syria (Guardian). The unrest became more complex when thousands of counterprotesters publicly marched in favor of the regime on January 3.
More than 20 people are estimated to have been killed during violence that has accompanied the protests.
What is Telegram Messenger?
Telegram Messenger was launched in 2013 by Russian brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov. Currently based in Dubai, after years of moving from country to country, the company describes the service as cloud-based, private, open-sourced, and secure.
Telegram is appealing because it’s free and can be easily used to store and share large files, such as videos. Its ‘Channel’ function allows users to broadcast messages to large audiences. Many Iranians subscribe to public channels to get news that is often unavailable on state media.
The app began gaining traction in Iran in 2014, at about the time that Viber, another popular messaging app, was blocked in the country. Of Iran’s 80 million people, an estimated 40 million are now Telegram users.
Telegram has been criticized by cryptographers and others in the tech community for not being as secure as it claims to be. It doesn’t provide end-to-end encryption by default unless the user chooses ‘Secret’ mode. It stores user data on its servers in the cloud. It uses its own MTProto protocol, designed by Nikolai Durov, defying a well-known rule of cryptography: don’t create your own. One of the rationales behind this rule is that the newer an encryption is, the less time there is to spot flaws. So far, MTProto has not yet been broken.
Telegram has also come under criticism for being the Islamic State’s app of choice (Vox), and for not moving quickly enough to shut down propaganda channels.
“I am troubled that Telegram has failed to follow through its own rules against a number of other channels, including the Iranian Nazi channel. On several occasions I have reported the channel to Telegram, without any response or action,” Babak Rahimi, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego, told WikiTribune.
Alternative messenger apps available in Iran have their own issues.
Signal messenger is often touted as the most secure available app (Intercept). It doesn’t store any message metadata. And it uses the Open Whisper Systems established protocol, the same used by the Facebook-owned Whatsapp.
But Signal can’t broadcast to a large number of people the way Telegram can. So while it’s the better choice for personal security, it’s constrained by outreach capabilities.
From Twitter to Telegram
The 2009 Green Movement was dubbed the ‘Twitter Revolution’ for its apparent widespread use of Twitter, which had been blocked since then.
However, Rahimi told WikiTribune that he “strongly objects” to this view. He criticized the media echo chamber for providing information from afar while “defining the porous and tenebrous nature of the street protests with multiple causes in a country as large and complex as Iran.”
“In particular, the U.S. media, which had no physical presence in the country, reported the protests in a way that gave the impression that social media was the driving force behind the Green Movement,” Rahimi said. “What Twitter certainly did not do was facilitate protesters to organize events or share information in a coherent and coordinated way.”
He worries that this is being overplayed again with the role of Telegram.
But there are important differences between Twitter in 2009 and Telegram today. Twitter was mostly used to communicate to the outside world, but Iranians use Telegram to communicate with each other. In addition, in 2009 about one million Iranians owned smartphones. Today, roughly 48 million do.
“On an infrastructure side, Iran’s Internet and mobile technologies have become more advanced since 2009, largely due to both [President] Rouhani administration’s attempt to expand Iran’s e-commerce as part of the country’s economic revival, especially post-nuclear deal period,” Rahimi said.
Internet censorship in Iran
Rouhani’s presidency, which began in 2013, promised a more relaxed approach to free speech on the internet. This has largely not materialized. Rouhani himself has his own Facebook page despite the network being blocked to citizens since 2009. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei still uses Twitter to spread his message.
In 2016, Iran launched its own domestic internet called the National Information Network (NIN), as reported by Tech Rasa. NIN divides internet traffic between foreign and domestic provenance. A heavy bias toward state-approved domestic sites is enabled by offering faster speeds and lower usage prices. Iranian citizens often have difficulty accessing foreign sites, whereas the Supreme Leader’s official site is always easy to access.
The non-profit Center for Human Rights in Iran has reported that since nationwide protests began, the Islamic Republic has imposed tighter restrictions on internet access. Tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs), which allow users to bypass filters, have been faltering.
Iranians have become resourceful in the face of censorship. The anonymous internet browsing software, Tor, reported up to 10,000 direct connections from Iran on January 2. CNN reported that many Iranians are still accessing Telegram using illegal VPN software.
Technology’s evolving role in political protests
Authoritarian regimes, such as those in China and Egypt, are prone to restricting access to channels of information during times of dissent. This becomes more difficult to do as technology improves. Jared Cohen, CEO of New York-based technology incubator Jigsaw, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., tweeted his belief that Iranians will find ways to bypass restrictions.
Regime in Iran can shut down signal, telegram, etc, but differently from 2009, the whole country is connected and they have a long list of other messaging apps to use. This time around it's much harder to win a game of technology wack-a-mole #IranianProtests
— Jared Cohen (@JaredCohen) January 2, 2018
But new tools and increased connectivity can also create problems for movements.
In her 2017 book Twitter and Tear Gas, sociologist and programmer Zeynep Tufecki explored how the web has helped demonstrations take off, but also how it makes them harder to sustain.
“In some ways, digital technologies deepen the ever-existing tension between collective will and individual expression within movements, and between expressive moments of rebellion and the longer-term strategies requiring instrumental and tactical shifts,” Tufecki wrote.
Writing for Politico, internet researcher Mahsa Alimardani examined the predicament Telegram finds itself in with protests in Iran. Perhaps, she wrote, it’s not just what citizens can do with technology, but what technology can and should do for them.
“Will [Telegram] develop better, secure tools to allow people to circumvent censorship, or will they collaborate with a system that endeavors to centralize and control the online lives of its users?” Alimardani wrote. “More than perhaps any technology company in history, Telegram has a unique obligation to the people of Iran at a moment of their extreme peril. Will the company use its power wisely and humanely?”