Iranians love Telegram. With approximately 20 million Iranian users, it’s the most widely used messaging app in the country.
Iranians join channels based on their interests and spend hours reading, sharing pictures and videos, and chatting about sports, entertainment and news. But also politics.
Over the years, Telegram has helped quench Iranians’ thirst for online political expression in a country where Twitter and Facebook are banned. But leading up to Iran’s presidential election in May, Telegram is now seen by some as a force that’s stifling political speech.
That’s because in recent months Iranian security and intelligence agencies have begun arresting Telegram users and now require those who run popular Telegram channels to apply for permits — disclosing their identities.
Government officials have justified the move to the local media by saying it’s a matter of national security. Users and industry experts, however, say it has another effect: deterring political discourse.
That could pose a problem for Telegram, which touts itself as a messaging app that protects user privacy and insists “politically motivated censorship” goes against its founders’ principles. It’s a conflict familiar to many international social media firms, which must balance their free speech ideals against the varying rules of the countries where they operate.
Founded by brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov three years ago as a messaging service with a focus on privacy, Telegram has grown to 100 million monthly active users. It offers messaging and group chat features with the option of encrypted communication and popular channels, where the users who create them can share ideas, articles, pictures and videos with followers.
Those who run channels have had a level of anonymity on the service. But in December, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, Iran’s main agency tasked with Internet policy, established laws ordering the operators of Telegram channels inside the country with more than 5,000 followers to obtain a permit from Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance by the end of February or face prosecution. As of January, around 700 Telegram channel administrators have sought permits, according to Iran’s Tasnim News agency.
In addition, applicants are required to add an automated bot to their Telegram channel as a co-administrator. There’s concern the bots could allow authorities to identify — and potentially prosecute — users for the channels they follow.
Their presence is leading some to censor their speech or stay out of political channels altogether, according to Amir Rashidi, an Internet security researcher at the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran.
“If the [Iranian government] collects Telegram usernames, they can pass it to that ‘bot’ and create a map of who is following any type of Telegram channels,” Rashidi said.
It isn’t unusual for state authorities to target individuals for online dissent. Last December, a handful of Iranians in the fashion industry were prosecuted for posting pictures on social networking sites such as Instagram, which officials argued promoted “Western culture.”
In January, officials in Iran’s Hormozgan Province shut down around 80 Telegram channels and arrested 32 people managing those channels, according to Iran’s semi-official ISNA channel, accusing them of “spreading lies, disturbing public order, creating fear and promoting immoral and anti-cultural material.”
And in February, Iran’s conservative Fars News Agency reported that authorities detained several administrators of Telegram channels.
The crackdown has heightened fear among Telegram users, including journalists, activists and lawyers, who worry political statements — even those made on other platforms — could have major consequences if they wind up on Telegram.
Fatemeh Jamalpur, a journalist who moved to the U.S. from Tehran a few months ago, said she and her colleagues scour popular Iranian Telegram channels to make sure comments they made on Facebook or Twitter have not been republished there by channel administrators.
“My friends in Iran, when they see their tweets republished in these popular channels that talk about politics, they worry. It’s dangerous for us that they republish these tweets,” she said.
They point to the case of Alireza Rahmani, a public relations director for the governor’s office in Qazvin, Iran, who was arrested last November after posting a petition on a Telegram channel in his district asking for the release of an imprisoned human rights activist.
Before Rahmani was arrested, a conservative news site published a screenshot of his post on its Telegram channel, which accused him of “siding with individuals engaged in security crimes,” the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported.
Telegram insists it isn’t cooperating with the Iranian government, which established a website outside the app where channel administrators must register.
“Our rules are the same for any country, including Iran and other countries in the Middle East: We do not share data with governments, and we do not engage in political censorship,” Telegram spokesman Markus Ra said.
In the past, Telegram says it has fought back against the Iranian government’s request to hand over user data and move its servers to Iran.
The Berlin-based company did not respond to repeated questions about future operations in Iran now that Iranian officials are implementing regulations that appear to limit speech on its platform.
Such tactics put Telegram in a difficult position, analysts say.
On one hand, Telegram needs to maintain an outward display of unwavering commitment to its free-speech and privacy principles, but on the other, the company needs to avoid provoking the Iranian government and losing a vital market, independent researcher Collin Anderson said.
“As much as 25% of Telegram’s total user base comes from Iran, and that’s a significant chunk. And it doesn’t include people from the diaspora, which use it to communicate with friends and family in Iran,” he said.
Social media companies operating outside North America and western Europe have come under increasing government pressure in foreign markets. Turkey and Brazil imposed temporary blocks on WhatsApp in 2016 after the company failed to hand over user data related to criminal investigations. And China blocked Telegram after learning human rights lawyers were using it.
“Companies operating in authoritarian settings have little choice but to leave the market, comply with state demands or risk blocking, closure or imprisonment of their local staff,” a 2016 report from Freedom House said.
Government sentiment toward social media soured in Iran following the disputed 2009 presidential election, when many used Twitter and Facebook to organize protests.
Since then, Iranian authorities have cracked down, establishing a complex and decentralized network of agencies regulating the Internet. And they have cast social media platforms — described by Iranian prosecutor general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri as “polluted anti-religious networks — as an enemy.
The Internet “isn’t freedom. It’s the worst kind of bondage,” Montazeri said in December.
Although President Hassan Rouhani and his centrist administration have promoted Internet freedom and used social media to communicate with supporters, that hasn’t changed the perspective of other arms of the government.
“There is a lot of pressure to block Telegram during the election, and Rouhani doesn’t want to do that,” Rashidi said. “Telegram is going to be more popular than anytime in Iran.”
Still, the concerns about surveillance weigh on users.
Amir, who gave only his first name because he has received threats and has family in Iran, manages “mamlekate” a Telegram channel he started more than a year ago that focuses on breaking news and politics.
With more than 290,000 followers, Amir’s Telegram channel is one of the most popular in Iran. He has lived in Europe since 2008, meaning he doesn’t have to register with the state. Yet he continues to worry his relatives in the country will be punished for his actions.
“Sometimes I dream about being found and arrested. It’s very intense,” he said.
Follow me on Twitter @melissaetehad
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