Telegram App on Frontline of Iran's Assault on Online Freedom

(Bloomberg) -- Alireza Aghasi wasn’t too worried when Iran first banned the Telegram messaging app that’s the backbone of his digital advertising agency. As tensions with the U.S. heat up, however, the widening assault on freedoms could begin to cost him business.

Twitter has been prohibited for years in Iran, but people used special technology to bypass curbs and turned to Telegram, which became the favored online forum. Then, on April 30, Telegram was banned too. Authorities began to shut down proxies and other workarounds. The office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei closed its account and the judiciary declared Telegram a security threat; a foe in the cloud to add to that across the Atlantic.

The crackdown gathered pace after President Donald Trump announced on May 8 that he was withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal, emboldening hard-liners who were wary of the U.S. all along. The U.S. exit undermined moderates led by President Hassan Rouhani, who had promised more freedoms and championed the nuclear accord as the means to end Iran’s isolation and revive its economy after years of international sanctions.

Telegram has become such an everyday communication tool in Iranian universities, hospitals, businesses and even state-run organizations that the impact of its closure is likely to stretch far beyond its primary aim of stifling opposition to the Islamic Republic.

Aghasi, chairman of AdVenture advertising agency, has received instructions to take his website down, and says restrictions on Telegram would slash revenues by at least half. “Conditions are getting tougher and tougher,” the 30-year-old said.

‘Everyday Tool’

The flow of information across an increasingly speedy Internet was one substantial success of Rouhani’s pledge to allow greater personal freedoms. High-speed mobile Internet access surged from 200,000 users in 2012, the year before Rouhani was first elected, to 53 million today, according to Mohammadreza Azali, co-founder of TechRasa, a technology news website in Tehran. Most signed up for Telegram, which now hosts about 500,000 Farsi channels where users post and curate all sorts of content -- including political dissent.

Telegram today accounts for 40 percent of Iran’s Internet bandwidth, Azali said. “If Rouhani hadn’t been here, we wouldn’t have had these advances.”

With the nuclear deal facing possible collapse, however, political moderates are on the defensive and Rouhani himself has adopted a harsher tone against the U.S. Information and Communications Technology Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi at first criticized the Telegram ban, but later said closing some proxies and Virtual Private Networks used to circumvent the restrictions was necessary to protect national security.

Asked on Wednesday whether authorities may reconsider, he said: “We are not the decision-makers.”

Officials have cited the app’s cryptocurrency as a possible threat to an already slumping rial. And authorities argued that Telegram’s encryption and storage of data in servers abroad left Iran more vulnerable to external threats.

When anti-government protests erupted in December, Iranian authorities temporarily shut down Telegram, concerned that it was being used to organize protest and incite violence. And as unrest spread, U.S. officials including Trump, came out in support of demonstrators.

Iranian authorities will be expecting the U.S. to try to instigate unrest or leverage existing frustration, said Adnan Tabatabai, chief executive officer of the Center for Applied Research in Partnership With the Orient, a think-tank in Bonn, Germany.

“In such a climate of anxiety, we can expect the security apparatus to tighten its grip,” he said, adding that Rouhani’s political overtures to the West were now over. “It might take another generation of politicians” before they can be tried again.

Read also:

Iran’s Door to the West Is Slamming Shut, and That Leaves China

Europe Steps Up Bid to Salvage Iran Accord Ditched by Trump (2)

Trump’s Blow to Iran Reformists Plays Into Hands of Hard-Liners

‘What Did You Do?’

While the extent of Iran’s latest online crackdown is unprecedented, however, it hasn’t been a stellar success. Azari Jahromi said on May 19 that only about a tenth of Telegram’s 45 million users had switched to local rivals. The rest now battle to stay one step ahead of authorities by seeking out software known as filter-shekan, or filter-breakers, that allows them to access online services as if they were elsewhere.

Aysan Aghili, who’s studying industrial design at a Tehran university, said she’d received text message advertisements for Soroush, a chat app built by local developers, but questioned its privacy. “Even if it was a well-designed option, people still wouldn’t trust it,” said the 22-year-old. “All students are talking about now is what VPN are you using, because all the ones we had are being deactivated.”

Iran’s actions echoed those of Russia, which banned Telegram after it refused to hand over private conversations. “Privacy is not for sale, and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed,” Telegram’s founder and self-exiled Russian entrepreneur, Pavel Durov, tweeted on April 13.

Other Iranians have taken their complaints straight to Rouhani, highlighting the wedge that has opened up between him and his support base as conservatives gain political strength.

“Didn’t you promise this time last year that if people backed you, you’d defend their rights with all your might,” tweeted one Iranian, referring to Rouhani’s 2017 re-election campaign. “You said my arm isn’t strong enough for certain things. We became your bicep, what did you do?”

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