Iran ♥ Telegram (en)

Iran is the country won over by Telegram. The service gained coverage here, similar to the coverage of WeChat in China. But because of the information blockade of the Islamic state, the Botlab team had to visit the country in person to sort out everything on the spot.

Botlab’s CTO in Teheran

The fact that Telegram is extremely popular in Iran has been known for a long time. In 2014 Viber was blocked in Iran with the estimated audience of around 20 million. After that, Telegram showed an explosive growth reaching over 40 million users in 3 years.

And this accounts for a half of the Iranian population including children, old people and farmers.

During the 2016 parliamentary elections politicians emphasized on the use of digital media channels including Telegram. The video by Mohammad Khatami posted on his Telegram’s channel was watched by over 3 million users within 24 hours.

Nearly all social networks are blocked in Iran: Facebook, Twitter, vk, etc. At the same time, the local authorities have repeatedly tried to take control of Telegram. In 2015, the cyber police of Iran demanded the transfer of the Telegram server to the territory of the Islamic Republic. And on April 16 this year the new function of VOIP calls was made unavailable after the respective data transfer protocol was completely blocked by all Iranian providers.

UPD. Recently a story surfaced about Telegram setting up CDN servers in Iran, after which the Iranian government reported about the Telegram’s administration cooperation with the authorities. However, Durov denies all of that.

Part 1. Freedom?

We recall just one resonating incident of Telegram’s blocking — in November of 2015 the administration has deleted 78 channels related to terrorists.

But it appears as though the Telegram’s administration is closely involved with the Iranian Minister of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and with no public exposure too.

The problems started surfacing in the summer of 2015, when the local providers began blocking Telegram’s traffic, causing great distress in the company. However, later in his interview to Vice, Pavel Durov said that “the situation is not 100% clear” and generally the problems were more about money than politics.

In August 2015, access to some bots used for distributing pornographic content was banned. And this was clearly not an economic case.

Here is how a ban of a porno bot looks like in Iran. The Iranians seem to be upset asking: “Why did you restricted us, @telegram”?

Later we had another shady story with sticker packs that contained some inappropriate content according to the Iranian authorities. It all ended with the Telegram’s administration reaching out to ICT expressing apologies (sic!) for the stickers’ peculiarities and blocking all ‘inappropriate’ stickers.

For all those who understand the technical specifics of bots, it’s obvious that the Telegram’s team is cooperating with the Iranian government.

And in six months we witnessed the real evidence of that. Mahmoud Vaezi, ICT Director, reported that Telegram had blocked a range of channels at the request of the Iranian authorities. However, Durov had never acknowledged the blocking, referring to some alleged connection of the channels to ISIS.

Part 2. Web 3.0

The closed nature of the country up until now with rigid censorship policies by ICT, coupled with a below average pace of broadband Internet penetration led to the Web, as we know it, not reaching the mass market in Iran. Whereas, some difficulties with app stores (Google Play is blocked in the country) resulted in explosive growth of messenger-based communication.

Businesses do not create websites in Iran, instead, they create Telegram channels and communities to deliver everything they need to the people. You can use Telegram to order taxi, food, clothes, get fresh news updates or talk to your mom.

Outdoor commercials, radio and TV all feature Telegram IDs instead of URLs.

Food delivery service ad on a handle in the Teheran’s subway. Taking pictures is actually prohibited there :)

It looks as though Telegram in Iran is repeating the history of Chinese WeChat, where a messenger replaced a whole media infrastructure: sites, applications, press, TV, etc.

Advertising in large channels became a whole new business. Administrators charge from $70 to $120 for 2 hour ad placements on the channels with further ad removal. According to TechRasa the total annual revenue of Iranian channels reached $23.3 million.

Revenue of Telegram channels in Farsi

In February 2017 the Ministry of Culture of Iran passed a law requiring mandatory registration of all Telegram channels with over 5000 subscribers by their owners. Otherwise, legal prosecution would be imminent.

Head of ICT Mahmoud Vaezi says that it is a way to control the dissemination of fake news. But this way the Ministry of Culture not only gains the control over the fake news (we wrote about the phenomenon of fake news before) but also over information and people bypassing the Telegram’s policy.

Telegram cannot do anything in this situation, since no unsanctioned personal info is disclosed. A Telegram’s representative Marcus Ra stated: “Our policy is the same in all countries: we do not share info with the government and do not participate in any political censorship”. In fact, the channel creators voluntarily (mandatorily), by law, disclose their data to the state.

This law looks like the answer of the Iranian government to Telegram, when Pavel Durov refused to relocate his servers to Iran and disclose the users’ data to the authorities.

UPD. On May 7 the total number of post views in public channels of the Iranian segment of TG reached 2.4 billion.

Part 3. Information

I am taking a ride in an Iranian taxi cab. From time to time, the driver lights up the screen of his iPhone and taps the blue icon with a paper plane. He laughs and shows me some funny flics praising Putin and making fun of Trump. I glanced at the number of subscribers to one channel with funny pics (styled like Russian MDK) — over 1.5 million people.

Iranians consume most of their content from Telegram. Be it news or Youtube videos.

British branch of BBC (BBC Persian) publishes news in Farsi in its Telegram-channel. Their site is blocked in Iran, and the only way to communicate with their audience not only for them but also for many other companies is Telegram.

The Telegram channel of BBC Persian has about 900 thousand subscribers with 10–20 daily news posts. And since the BBC’s editorial office is outside Iran, they do not need to register the channel like the Iranian residents. And, so, they can write news without fear of persecution by the authorities.

BBC Persian covering the World news

When in January of 2017 more than 20 firefighters got killed in a fire in a Tehran skyscraper, the Iranian government banned the coverage of this event. BBC Persian asked its subscribers to send photos and videos from the location and continued reporting on the fire using their channel.

Telegram allowed the Iranians to finally “quench their thirst for online political discussions.” People create chats and channels to discuss politics and express their opinions.

But the matter is not so much in expressing a position as in obtaining reliable political information, which instigates the political opinions of citizens. In Iran, all news agencies are controlled by the state, so the only source of uncensored news is the foreign agencies.

In May 2017, the presidential elections will be held in Iran. And given the incredible popularity of Telegram for discussing political preferences, Tehran’s prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi appealed to President Hassan Rouhani with a request to block the messenger. But Hassan Rouhani turned down this proposal saying that Telegram will not be banned until the end of his political term.

I think that the future of Telegram in Iran directly depends on the results of these elections.

UPD. The people of Iran have re-elected Hassan Rouhani to rule for another term. Everything is gonna be fine:)

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