Sunset for Telegram? // Iran’s Latest Act of Censorship, and What Happens Next

James Marchant
May 3, 2018 · 8 min read

On April 30, a prosecutor sitting on Iran’s Media Court issued the order to filter Telegram—an order which has since plunged the Iranian internet into meltdown.

With more than 40 million estimated users in Iran, Telegram has been the main entry point to the internet for a large segment of the population. Many businesses use the platform to advertise, sell and distribute their products, and countless citizens use it to access news, chat with friends and family, and engage with local services.

Now, it’s been blocked. Within two days, the app was filtered by every ISP operating nationwide. The ban on Telegram also ended up temporarily affecting a whole host of unrelated websites—including Apple, Microsoft and IBM—along with a number of Iranian tech start-ups. This had echoes of the clumsy Telegram ban we saw in Russia just a fortnight earlier, where over 18 million IP addresses found themselves blocked.

For the last two years Telegram has established itself as Iran’s most diverse and expansive online public square — but is this the beginning of the end? Is there really a chance that its influence will all be swept away by a mid-ranking judge and prosecutor on Iran’s Media Court?

Before we answer that, let’s take a step back.

Back-and-Forth // How We Ended Up Here

This order didn’t come out of nowhere. Debates over the future of Telegram have rumbled on for a long time—we’ve been reporting on the on-and-off filtering of the platform going as far back as October 2015.

More recently, Telegram was temporarily blocked amidst the nationwide unrest at the start of 2018, though even this brought public protests from the ICT Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi.

Since then, high-level ICT policymaking bodies such as the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC) have been advocating for the uptake of home-grown messaging apps such as Soroush, but have been sending mixed signals about the filtering of Telegram.

The SCC Secretary Abolhasan Firouzabadi stated in March that there would be no need to filter Telegram to encourage the migration of Iranian users from Telegram to apps like Soroush, and that users would make the switch organically.

Yet by mid-April, Secretary Firouzabadi, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of Iran’s Parliamentary National Security Committee had all indicated that the filtering of the app was imminent.

This all came in spite of the Rouhani government’s continued public insistence that filtering policies are futile and harmful, and that Telegram should remain unfiltered. The judicial order triggered rumours about ICT Minister Jahromi’s resignation, which he was later forced to deny. Instead, his ICT Ministry released a statement criticising the judicial order, and stating that it’s ultimately impossible to restrict the flow of information online. The conflict isn’t over yet.

Authorities hope that the home-grown messaging app Soroush will rise to capture a large chunk of Telegram’s dominant market share.

The Wrestler // The Man Who Broke Iran’s Internet

Policymakers have been butting heads over Telegram for months, but it was a mid-ranking Media Court judge and prosecutor Bijan Ghassemzadeh—whose previous moment in the spotlight came after a high-profile clash with the rapper Tataloo—who broke the stalemate. So who is Ghassemzadeh, and how has he found himself at the centre of this storm?

Judge Bijan Ghasemzadeh is the Tehran Special Prosecutor’s Officer for offences related to media and culture. He was also the chair of the Islamic Republic of Iran Wrestling Federation’s Ethics Committee from April 2012 to November 2013.

Ghasemzadeh is an eccentric character: in an interview with Mizan Online published on 13 January 2015, he introduced himself as a seasoned sportsman with number of national and international wrestling titles under his belt. Disappointingly, we’ve been unable to find any evidence of his heroic exploits on the United World Wrestling Federation’s exhaustive database of athletes.

There’s not a great deal of information available about Ghasemzadeh. There have been some unverified rumours that he’s facing an open embezzlement case, though no hard evidence exists on this count. That said, the gossip was enough to warrant a rebuttal from the Tehran Prosecutor General Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, who denied the reports and described them as having been invented by the Islamic Republic’s enemies.

Ghasemzadeh has faced some lower-level corruption allegations, however. Masoud Esmaeilpour Jouybari, a medal-winning Iranian wrestling champion accused Judge Ghasemzadeh of using his influence to get his brother-in-law a job at the wrestling team ‘Damash’.

Needless to say, Ghasemzadeh’s reputation has not so far been that of a titan of media regulation. As such, it’s interesting that the order came from this mid-ranking member of the judicial establishment.

So… What Now? // The Rouhani Government’s Next Steps

It’s not entirely clear what happens now. The situation is different from January, when the decision to temporarily block Telegram was taken by Iran’s National Security Council, and seemingly with the tacit approval of Jahromi’s ICT Ministry. Back then, Jahromi was a harsh critic of Telegram for not deleting channels calling for the violent overthrow of the Islamic Republic, and he seemingly felt justified in filtering the app temporarily during a time of political unrest.

This time, there is far less unity among state elites about how to handle the ban. The Rouhani government has published a statement criticising the judiciary’s order, while Jahromi insisted in a series of tweets that only the National Security Council has the authority to make proper rulings about content filtering.

Despite these protestations, Iran still lacks any effective mechanisms for resolving conflicts between the government and the judiciary on matters relating to ICT policy. The Supreme Council of Cyberspace is meant to be the top-level body making key ICT policy decisions, but its actual legal powers are fairly non-existent. It seems unlikely to play a major role in challenging the judicial order.

It also seems like it’s going to be difficult for the Rouhani administration to challenge this ruling in the courts. Shadi Sadr of Justice4Iran told us that Ghasemzadeh’s order was issued under Article 114 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which states that any Investigator can issue an order of this kind after obtaining approval from their provincial Prosecutor General — in this case, the Tehran Prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi.

According to Sadr, this order can only be appealed in Tehran’s criminal courts within five days of being issued, and only by Telegram itself. Whether the government or any affected individuals could feasibly lodge an appeal is something of a legal grey area, though. But what is clear is that an appeal in the courts may not be a viable route out of this mess.

Although the judicial decision bypassed the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, the ICT Ministry and the Filtering Committee, there appear to be no straightforward mechanisms for any institutions to overturn the order.

Keeping Watch // What Should We Be Looking For?

The key question we now need to start thinking about an answer to is this: Now that Telegram is being aggressively filtered in Iran, what are the implications going to be for user security, privacy, and access to information?

Let’s break this down some more. There are a few possible outcomes from this decision:

  1. Telegram loses its primacy in the Iranian digital media landscape. It could abdicate its position either to a home-grown app like Soroush (the state’s ideal) or else to some other foreign alternative (the state’s not-so-ideal). This option would see quite a bit of disruption and fragmentation in the short-term as users start migrating elsewhere.
  2. Telegram’s user base takes a moderate hit, but users flock to circumvention tools such as Psiphon to circumvent the state’s censorship of the platform. Data from the January filtering incident showed massive spikes in Psiphon usage, and with the deployment of new tools such as Telegram Digital Resistance — a version of Telegram with Psiphon integrated as standard — this trend looks set continue. Indeed, if circumvention tool usage does continue to grow, the ban on Telegram could end up giving authorities less control over users’ online behaviours than before.
  3. The Rouhani government attempts to develop mechanisms to resolve conflicts between the government and the judiciary. The Rouhani government’s statement criticising the judiciary’s actions stresses the role of bodies such as the National Security Council in setting state filtering policy. This incident marks perhaps the biggest clash between the government and the judiciary where the Rouhani administration has been mostly powerless to respond. If the government takes any actions to set up new institutions to resolve conflicts between the government and the judiciary, then it would be a strong signal that Rouhani and Jahromi are manoeuvring to take back control over their ICT policy agenda.
  4. A significant number of Iranian Internet users download and start using domestic apps alongside Telegram, using the domestic apps for official and business use. This might see authorities lift the block on Telegram, and allow domestic apps to gradually develop their services and capacities for domestic users. This will also allow authorities to place a temporary block on Telegram at sensitive political moments without adversely affecting local businesses.

In the meantime, digital rights researchers and activists can do a few things to better understand the long-term impacts of this order:

  1. Monitor levels of user activity in key channels across Telegram, Soroush, and other home-grown messaging apps. Collecting this data will allow us to understand the extent to which users are migrating over to these new state-sanctioned platforms.
  2. Monitor levels of VPN usage by Iranian citizens. It is very possible that by driving massive uptake of circumvention tools by the public, the state will do active harm to its own surveillance and censorship efforts.
  3. Document the effects of the ban on marginalised groups. Telegram was a vital mechanism of connection for a whole host of marginalised groups, ranging from low-income citizens, to disabled people, to isolated LGBTQ people. These groups enjoyed access to information, and to communities due to the accessibility and diverse features of Telegram. It’s important to understand the impact of this new policy on these sorts of populations.
  4. Document ownership of home-grown app developers. In the rush to privatise the Iranian ICT sector in the late 2000s, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-affiliated groups gained disportionate influence and ownership over a host of new private technology companies. If domestic apps are being offered substantial support to grow, there may be a rush by security groups and IRGC investment fronts to gain influence and ownership over these apps.
  5. Demand fundamental reforms of existing ICT legislation from the reformist-dominated parliament. Despite featuring Twitter logos in much of their promotional material, the last few months have proven that election of moderate and reformist parliamentarians does not translate directly to moderation in filtering policy. Parliament should be pushed to develop digital rights legislation that guarantees citizens’ access to information and online privacy, and which resolves once and for all the countless ambiguities and contradictions in Iranian ICT law.

To access our monthly reports on Iranian ICT policy and infrastructure development, check out: smallmedia.org.uk/work/filterwatch

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Small Media // James Marchant // Amin Sabeti // Tom Ormson // Kaveh

Filterwatch

Monitoring online censorship and internet policy in Iran

James Marchant

Written by

Research Manager at @Small_Media

Filterwatch

Monitoring online censorship and internet policy in Iran

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