Telegram: The Beloved but Banned App

The end of Iranians’ three-year romance with the popular Telegram Messenger.

At last, after about a month of being at the center of serious reports both confirming and denying its closing, Telegram Messenger, the favorite of 40 million, has been “filtered” (i.e. blocked). This came exactly one month after Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the head of the National Security Commission in Parliament, had issued the latest and most serious threat to ban Messenger. Thus did Telegram join the ranks of other popular social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Viber, all of which have been filtered. 

Unlike most decisions taken to deny access to sites and messaging services on the web, this time “the working group charged with determining evidence of criminal content” was not responsible for making a determination. It was, rather, the act of a body that came into being after the passage of the computer crimes law in Parliament, which began work in 2009. The judgment to ban Telegram bore the signature of the prosecutor of the second branch of the culture and media court of Tehran, an office that is considered to reside on the lower rung of the judicial court hierarchy. According to the law, with the exception of the above-mentioned parliamentary body, only one magistrate can issue such a ruling on the basis of complaints from the public and the formation of a dossier. In an interview with Aftab Yazd Newspaper conducted three days before the ruling was issued, even the Minister of Communications was unaware of such a complaint or complaints. Finally on Monday, 30 April 2018 at the close of business hours, the prosecutor at the second branch, whose picture, after the blocking of Telegram, circulated widely in cyber space, issued the order to filter Telegram. The order directly charged all service providers in the country with instituting a total shut down of Telegram’s web site and applications. In reality, this filtering, which was carried out by going around the government as enforcer of the law, communicated to operators that in the event the government refused to carry out the ruling, internet service providers, fearing prosecution, were responsible for doing so. In addition to the direct communication to providers, what is interesting is that the filtering: “was to be carried out in such a way that the content of the said network would not be made available through the use of any type of software (whether anti-filtering or like software).”

Thus was access to this messaging application blocked inside the country, an application which, according to Hossein Derakhshan’s New York Times article “Iran Lives on this App,” is the virtual home to 40 million Iranians or all their groups and channels. This is perhaps the first time in the history of Iran, talk of the absence or presence of or the interference with the operation of a messaging service had become the topic of conversation among ordinary people. Not even the widespread and severe disruptions in the internet and the cutting of telephone text-messaging services and social media in the days after the elections of 2009 were able to turn this type of medium and social networks into topics of daily conversation among Iranians. Not a “medium” in the traditional sense of the word, but a tool that, in the shadow of real-world prohibitions, Telegram had been transformed into a substitute for transmitting information, a means for diversion, and an outlet for reporting the political and social activity of Iranians.

Telegram with around 200 million users across the globe, is the ninth most popular messaging app in the world. With its more than 40 million domestic users, nearly half the population of Iran, it ranks first among messaging platforms. But the question is this: How did this 40-million-user medium become so entwined in the fabric of Iranians’ lives? 


In Respectful Memory of Viber

Even taking into account Orkut, Yahoo 360, FriendFeed, Facebook Messenger and…Faktur, we must acknowledge Viber was the first popular, all-pervasive messaging application in Iran. Or, to put it more precisely, with the rapid growth of the smart cell phone, a software app on a mobile turned into the first personal, recreational, and, of course, unfiltered means of personal communication in Iran. Here is where the saga of the rise of Telegram and the fall of Viber begins. In the first years of the 2010s, with the advent of the many sorts of messaging services, the replacements for previously filtered social networks like Facebook or Twitter were on their way. Installed on phones, they made it easy for texts, images, and videos to circulate among users without the need for filter-removing software. It is not exactly clear at what point and why the community of Iranian users gravitated to Viber, but gradually, during one brief interval, the sharp rise in its usership resulted in a greater awareness of the spread of the calling and messaging app’s influence. In February of 2015, the Ministry of Guidance reported there were 15 million users, i.e. around 17 percent of people on the web in Iran—and that at a time when about 20 million smart phones were in use in the country.

What raised Viber’s profile was the speedy circulation of news on its network. For example, the first, unsubstantiated news of Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani’s candidacy for the Assemble of Experts was published on Viber in March 2015, thereby drawing attention to the messaging app’s capability as an instantaneous means of communication available to many. Further increasing Viber’s visibility were jokes about Imam Khomeini, which prior to and after 2015 circulated on its network and some of which people interpreted as a wave of contempt for the founder of the Islamic Republic. Thus, toward the end of summer, the Judiciary arrested eleven people, charging them with insulting the founder of the Islamic Republic with text messages on their mobile phones. Around the same time Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of political science at the University of Tehran, voiced concern about making the jokes a pretext for filtering of Viber and for reducing the speed of the internet. It also happened towards the end of September, the Judiciary gave the Rouhani government one month to shut down Viber and WhatsApp Messenger “or else it would act on its own.” Despite this, in November the shutting down of Viber, WhatsApp, and Tango did not win the approval of “the working group charged with determining evidence of criminal content.” The intermittent sluggishness and the interruptions of Viber, which had started in the winter of the previous year and continued toward the end of 2014, were interpreted—whether true or not—as a sign of the filtering of its network. This went on until the first days of 2015 (late March) when, with mobile New Year’s greetings at their peak, the network became so slow, Viber was effectively useless.

No government institution officially confirmed the filtering of Viber; be that as it may, the first popular messaging service among Iranians was now out of reach to them. Although, apart from political considerations, the financial loss that would be incurred by switching Viber for messaging apps on mobiles, was cited a one reason for the unofficial filtering of the app. The fact that it was created by an Israeli company delivered the coup de grâce. Moreover, that a Japanese company acquired the Israeli firm in February 2014 did nothing to help Viber. It was thus that in 2015, with the closing of the dossier against Viber in Iran despite its being the fifth most popular messaging app in the world, the gradual shift to Telegram began, and this new and less well-known messaging app opened up on Iranian users’ mobile telephones.


Three Years with Telegram: from Migration to Filtering

The migration of users from Viber to other messaging apps started from May 2015. Among all the replacements, Line, WhatApp, Tango, and Telegram, Telegram despite its relative anonymity was more fortunate in attracting a user base among Iranians. Some cited speed, others safety as reasons for their choice; but, whatever the reason, about one month after the demise of Viber, Telegram had 5 million new Iranian users. In mid-summer of 2015, to its normal capabilities for sending text, sound and image, as well as for creating groups, Telegram added a new feature: creating stickers. This free feature put at the disposal of its users the capability to create stickers with personal photos suited to their own taste; the capability was also the first thing that created problems for Telegram. Soon images called “the immoral stickers on Telegram” and deemed contemptuous of the founder of the Islamic Republic were the first things that sparked talk about filtering Telegram. In the end, after the Ministry of Communications talks with Telegram, this feature of the app was blocked, and Mahmoud Vaezi, at the time the Minister of Communications, declared, “in the absence of repetition of this matter, there will be no impediment to Telegram operations in Iran.” In mid-September, a new feature went into operation on Telegram, which was perhaps its most important thing that distinguished it from comparable software: the creation of channels. This software enabled users to create personalized media using their mobile phones. In this way not only did official media outlets begin to set up their own channels on Telegram and occasionally deliver their breaking news faster than the news-originating site or source and place it on their Telegram feeds, so were channels created for governmental, religious, and political figures from the great leader of the Revolution to the grand sources of religious emulation, the President, the representatives in Parliament, and some Ministers of state. One should add to these groups the owners of various commercial concerns and small service and trading houses in various towns and villages, and, of course, former political figures and prisoners, journalists, expatriates, and writers of weblogs, authors whose writings this time reached their readers without filtering or censorship.

Starting around the winter of 2016, reports were being published about the setting up of news channels with more than five thousand members. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance gave the holders of these channels, which numbered 11 thousand and 10 channels [?], a month (between 26 January and 25 February, 2017) to identify their channels on the “registration” website of the Ministry. It appears the warning was not taken seriously by the holders of the channels, even though the advisory to the holders of channels with many subscribers to register their channels with the registration website continued to be communicated until the beginning of 2018. The website, which has gotten nowhere with registration is at this time unavailable.

Several months later on 12 April 2017, Pavel Durov, the managing director of Telegram officially announced on Twitter that voice communication was now operational for users. Although this possibility was made available for Iranian users two days later, disruptions in the system that some attributed to large internet volume and others to internal measures or the closing of the operation for Iranians by Telegram itself. But the new feature was shut down by the operators of Iran Mobile, First Operator, Irancell, and RighTel. Fars News announced on 16 April the capability of voice communication that had been set up two days earlier was shut down by order of the Judiciary. The new feature involved a considerable saving for users and a corresponding loss for mobile phone operators. The loss was far greater than the taking away of messaging apps like Viber had cost those operators earlier by eliminating users’ need to send non-internet short messages

In August 2017. Reports of bringing Telegram servers into the country raised quite a ruckus, but Durov, in denying the reports, announced that no server was and will not be transferred to Iran and he stated, “this company only has deployed a content delivery network or CDN in Iran.” In October 2017 after the repeated threat to register details on popular Telegram channels, the Tehran prosecutor brought charges against Durov because “the provision of services to terrorist groups like Isis has laid suitable groundwork for the activities of other organized groups and the spread and abetting of the crimes of child pornography and of human and drug trafficking.” Durov also in response to reporters’ questions said the news came as a shock and, “We are constantly blocking pornographic and terrorist content in Iran. I feel the actual reason for this clash lies somewhere else.”

In January of 2018 with protests having broken out throughout the cities, Telegram and Instagram were filtered and thereby rendered inaccessible; however toward the end of the month, the filter on the two networks was lifted on the President’s orders. Not three months had passed since the return of peaceful days for Telegram when in March murmurings about the permanent filtering of it serves began to be heard. Finally, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the National Security Commission in Parliament, announced with absolute certainty the blocking of Telegram by mid-April. The news was later both confirmed and denied by various authorities. In the end, however, in the afternoon of 17 April at the close of the business day, while many Iranians were following news of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech against Iran and the nuclear agreement on Telegram, the judicial decree to filter Telegram went viral on the net in Iran. The next morning Telegram was first filtered on the carriers Irancell and RighTel; however it was still available on the some home internets until, several hours later, Telegram did not come up on most receivers without anti-filtering software. In reality, the reason for this was that the decree had not been carried out on certain ASPs and the government and the company under construction had refrained from carrying out the filtering. 

Minister of Communications Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi on a Telegram post indirectly showed his reaction to the filtering of Telegram and affirmed the right to freedom of information. He even published news of the resignation of Azari Jahromi in his reaction to this filtering. Twenty-four hours after the issuing of the order to filter Telegram, the government in a proclamation implicitly criticized the judiciary’s steps against the messaging service and stated that responsibility related to threats to the nation’s security rested with the Security Commission. Five days after the filtering of Telegram, Rouhani in an Instagram post expressed his opposition to the filtering and stated, “if a determination about the limiting or blocking of the people’s communication had been taken,” then the people must be openly involved in any such decision.


What Effect did the Filtering Have?

Although ISPA, the Iranian Students Polling Agency, in its survey before being filtered, had announced that were Telegram to be filtered 59.7% of the users would use filter breakers and 39.3 would not; however, the heating up the filter breaker market showed that the number of the potential users of such software was far greater. In reality, it appears that the Iranian users—at least until the time this report was written—did not migrate en masse to foreign messaging services like WhatsApp, nor as customers for domestic messaging programs like Soroush, but went in search of filter breakers instead. According to media reports, several hours after the announcement of the filtering of Telegram, searches for the phrase “filter breaker,” and downloads of the Psiphon filter breaker site increased strikingly. Searches for the phrase “filter breaker” went up staggeringly: one time in January of 1396 after the temporary filtering of Telegram and again after news of its permanent blocking was announced. According to an announcement made by the Psiphon company after the filtering of Telegram, Iranian users made use of its filter breaker 2.2 million times every hour. Michael Hall, the managing director of the company in a conversation with the media said that in the last four days there were three attacks on Psiphon from Iran. According to him, one of the attacks, apparently an experiment, occurred a day before the filtering of Telegram, and after that there were two other attacks on the Psiphon network.

A study of 20 free downloaded programs from Google Play in the three days after the filtering of Telegram shows that all the downloads, with the exception of eight, were filter breakers: Psiphon, Turbo VPN, Lantern, Free VPN, Ultimate Proxy, and Hi VPN. The proliferation of such programs is analogous to what happened in January of after the temporary filtering of Telegram took place; the users had, in fact, been prepared for the shutdown. The number of Psiphon subscribers increased ten-fold in January; this accords with a figure of 30 million downloads of filter breakers reported by a representative in Parliament after a closed session of the secretary of the High Council on Cyber Space during the protests in January. Regarding this, Taha Yasseri, research fellow in computational science at Oxford, stated, “in January and a week after Telegram was completely filtered in Iran, the number of Psiphon users jumped from 1.5 million users to 13.5 million. After the filter was lifted from Telegram, the number of Psiphon users went to 2.5 million. This means that around a million of those people who did not use Psiphon as a rule, after the filtering, continued to use it.” The relatively normal exchanges of messaging on Telegram and the unveiling of the new channels on it show that, although correspondents were using parallel services like WhatsApp, it did not lead to an appreciable disruption in the activity of Telegram users.


The Ball in the Court of Domestic Messaging Apps

On 30 April, exactly [?] several hours before news of the filtering of Telegram was reported, users of cyber space were shocked to learn a $356,500 loan was granted to three domestic messaging services to help them attract new users and compete with foreign applications. Among the domestic messaging services iGap, eitaa, bale, BisPhon, Soroush, Gap, and Wispi, these three services were the ones that received a loan of about $112,000: Soroush, BisPhone, and Gap. Even though Abolhassan Firouzabadi, Head of the National Center for Cyber Space was among the first people who announced the payment of a loan to break the monopoly of Telegram, the size of the loan raised many questions and, of course, so did the manner in which it was granted and paid out. What compelled experts in this council to criticize the loan aid were doubts about its effectiveness. This is because, in their view, even though it is possible that it would help, the amount would absolutely not be enough to improve the state of domestic messaging services. Skepticism about these domestic messaging services is their principal dilemma. One can find rebuttals to this lack of faith in the services in the many jokes which, after the names of the domestic messaging services became public, make insulting attacks on the private lives of their users on domestic social networks. Khosrow Seljouki, member of the governing board of the Information Technology Organization of Iran after the news came out told the ISNA (Iranian Students News Agency), said, “The basic problem with domestic messaging services is not money, but trust. In this country, we want to solve every problem with money.”

Despite Firouzabadi’s assertion in remarks made before the blocking of Telegram that people had faith in domestic messaging services, it seems that the Soroush app, which is affiliated with the Jam-e Jam Organization (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting), was unsuccessful in attracting the attention of users. Nevertheless it was still the most talked about among all other domestic services and apparently the most preferred to those in favor of filtering. In one of its polls done before the filtering of Telegram, ISPA had found that 37.8% of the respondents would use Soroush in the event Telegram were blocked, and 46.3% of the respondents would not use it; that being said, the name Soroush is not found even among the twenty most downloaded software programs by Iranians on Google Play. A study carried out by experts at the Information Technology Organization reported Telegram X and Telegram occupying the first and second positions on the list of top downloaded software by Iranians before the filtering of Telegram. It also showed WhatsApp in third place. The Russian messaging app TamTam was shown to be in seventh position, and the American Imo in nineteenth. As for domestic software programs, Gap and Wispi were in tenth and twelfth place respectively. Except for these two domestic brands, as stated earlier, the twenty most downloaded programs, after the filtering of Telegram, were all filter breakers.


Telegram in the Land of the Principal Leaders

“I repeat (takrār mikonam) to all individuals on both lists,” the celebrated phrase Seyyed Mohammad Khatami uttered in March of 2016 in a short video that gradually came to be known merely as takrār mikonam, calls to mind the elections for the eleventh session of Parliament. The video is credited with generating, to a great extent, the relative advantage of the list of Reformist candidates and the “Moderates” (edālatiyun) in both the Islamic Consultative and Experts Assembly and with the unexpected 30-to-nil win for those affiliated with the reformists in Tehran. The video was brought out with the pall of the prohibition against images and speeches appearing in Iranian official media hanging over it and spread astonishingly from user to user on social networks, especially on Telegram. If we accept that this short video—apart from the jokes or videos that refer to it—was shown more than three million times on Telegram, the reason for marginalizing the messaging app becomes clear. The minister of communications at the time announced that, aside from this video, 200 million messages, both Reformist and Principalist, were exchanged daily on mobile phone networks. According to the Cyber Police (FTA), 79% of all activities in cyber space related to the elections for Parliament took place on Telegram. From this it is clear that the Principalists were not sitting idly by on social networks, especially Telegram. Be that as it may, however, the shutting down of factions close to Hassan Rouhani, especially given that the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Network was in the hands of the opposition party, caused their sweet victory in the eleventh Parliamentary election to be wholly attributed to virtual networks. This experience, which was accounted a great success in the use of the new tools of communication, attracted the attention of both domestic and foreign media. Even Rouhani made a sarcastic reference to this in his last news conference of 2016, when he said, “The people got up the morning of the elections and saw their mobile phones were working and the internet was working.” This indicates Rouhani and the wing close to him knew where the roots of the victory lay.

Telegram and the other social networks were also used by political factions and operatives in the twelfth presidential elections in which Rouhani was elected. According to Reza Salehi Amiri, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, more than three billion messages were exchanged by users in cyber space in the elections of May 2017. According to a study titled “The Role of Telegram in Publicizing the Twelfth Presidential Election in the View of Voters,” about 58% of respondents used Telegram software to a great or very great extent to obtain information about the election. Messaging from the Reformists formed the lion share of publicity directed at respondents to this survey.

The thing that gave Telegram the most utility in the spread of news was its channel-creating feature, which made it easy for news from a multitude of channels to be relayed among various groups. According to the latest statistics from the National Research Institute on Cyber Space, up until 23 January 1396, there were exactly 754,516 Iranian Telegram channels, which were viewed on average 2.5 billion times daily. The figure had certainly went up by May when Telegram was filtered. It was not unexpected, then, given the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Network had become the monopoly of one party and that newspapers and websites had found it difficult to publish materials at odds with the party line, that Telegram, aided by these channels, would emerge as a powerful social network. That which led to the filtering of Telegram was, in fact, its metamorphosis into an instantaneous, personal medium, a medium that, despite being filtered, proved effective and made up for the weaknesses of traditional Iranian media. It appears that, despite the filtering of Telegram and similar programs, the new media will continue to exist exactly as Hassan Rouhani predicted they would at the May 2014 celebration of Information and Communications Technology Day. He said, “We will little by little reach the point when there will be no room for message despotism. The era of sending messages through one-sided loudspeakers, one-sided pulpits, and…one-sided podiums has come to an end.”


Three Years of Telegram on Line

To study the reason behind the filtering of Telegram in Iran, I have followed the three-year process beginning with the migration of users to it and ending with the judicial decree filtering it. Although in following this process I have consulted a great many accounts in the news, here I have tried to list news accounts related to this popular messenger chronologically.

2015

  • 21 April: Start of user migration from Viber to Telegram 
  • 23 May: Sticker becomes operational on Telegram 
  • 24 May: Controversy surrounding immoral stickers 
  • 26 July: The Disabling of the Ability to Create Stickers for Iranian Users 
  • 27 August: The Ability to Create Channels on Telegram 

2016

  • 10 February: The Start of the Smart Filtering of Social Networks 
  • 21 February: The Short Video “I Repeat” Goes Viral in Cyber Space and Telegram 
  • 23 February: The Denial of Filtering Telegram on the Day of the Elections
  • 29 February: Several-hours-long Filtering of Web Telegram 
  • 13 April: The Activation of Voice Contact for Iranian Users 
  • 15 April: The Blocking of the Possibility of Voice Contact 
  • 2 June: The Subpoenaing of some Directors of Telegram Channels on the Charge of Election Violations 
  • 14 July: The Issuing by the Assistant Tehran Prosecutor of a Text Identifying 8,000 Illicit Telegram Channels 
  • 25 July: The Minister of Communication’s Threat to have the Assistant Tehran Prosecutor Declare a Crime the non-Compliance with the Judicial Orders in the Areas of Net Activities and Telegram Channels
  • 29 July: News of the Transfer of Telegram Servers to Iran by the Minister of Communication
  • 31 July: Denial of the News of the Transfer of Telegram Servers to Iran by Pavel Durof 
  • 14 August: Ending of the Trial of the Directors of Telegram Channels Conducted by Judge Salavati 
  • 14 August: The Reaction of the Managing Director of Telegram to Remarks made by the Principalist Representative from Ardabil Qazipour 
  • 27 August: The Arrest of six Directors of Telegram in Ardabil on Charges of Spreading Vice 
  • 25 September: Announcement of Criminal Charges against Pavel Durof 
  • 26 September: Arrest of several Social Media and Cyber Space Activists, including the manager of the site TinyMovies 
  • 2 October: Arrest of the Director of Telegram Channel Nazari-yab 
  • 9 November: Arrest of Directors of 110 Channels and Obscene Groups in Golestan Province 
  • 30 December: Filtering of Telegram and Instagram in Iran 

2017

  • 2 January: Declaring Cyberspace an Enemy by Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi 
  • 7 January: Arrest of eight Telegram Channel Directors in Kerman 
  • 12 January: Lifting of the Filter on Telegram and Instagram
  • 16 January: Sharp Criticism of the lifting of the Filter on Telegram by the Assistant General Prosecutor of the Country 
  • 18 January: Criticism of Telegram by Kazem Seddiqi, the Friday Prayer of Tehran 
  • 13 March: Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi Criticizes Telegram in a Meeting with the Representative of the Grand Ayatollah in the Military 

2018

  • 31 March: Announcement of the Filtering of Telegram by the Head of the National Security Commission in Parliament 
  • 1 April: Introduction of the Messaging Service eitaa by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting as a Replacement for Telegram 
  • 3 April: Speaking on Television, the Secretary of the High Council on Cyber Space Characterizes Telegram as a bandit 
  • 8 April: The Filtering of the Russian Messaging Service TamTam 
  • 10 April: Session of the Velāyi [Jurist] Faction of Parliament with Information about Telegram Provided by the Military 
  • 13 April: Filtering of Telegram in Russia by Judicial Decree
  • 18 April: Suspension of the Telegram Channels of Ayatollah Khamene’i, Hassan Rouhani, Jahangiri and the Assembly of Experts 
  • 21 April: Prohibition of Using Telegram in Schools 
  • 21 April: Suspension of Using Telegram Channels at Research Centers in Parliament 
  • 22 April: The Parliamentary Cultural Commission’s Approval of a Bill Granting Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Sole Control over Licenses and Regulations in Cyber Space 
  • 25 April: The Visit to Russia of Iranian Experts to Discuss the Filtering of Telegram 
  • 29 April: A Several-hour Disruption in Telegram Because of its Songs 
  • 30 April: Judicial Decree Ordering the Filtering of Telegram in Iran 
  • 1 May: The Spread of Mobile Malware under the Rubric of Getting Around Filtering Telegram 
  • 1 May: Implied Criticism by the Government of the Judicial Decree against Telegram 
  • 5 May: In an Instagram Post, Rouhani’s Criticizes the Highest Level of Government for Filtering Telegram 

Translation: Paul Sprachman