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What if your favorite app got banned? That's becoming a reality for millions in Iran

What if your favorite app got banned? That's becoming a reality for millions in Iran
The online messaging app Telegram has an estimated 40 million users in Iran – half the population – making it the country's most popular social media app. (Christophe Archambault / AFP/Getty Images)

Telegram, the most popular social media app in Iran, will be blocked nationwide, state media reported Sunday, a move expected to deal a severe blow to communications and commerce across the Islamic Republic.

The semi-official Fars news agency quoted Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, the telecommunications minister, as saying the app used by an estimated 40 million Iranians — half the population — would be blocked effective 10 a.m. Monday.

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Fars carried the news — where else? — on its Telegram channel, illustrating how the app is an almost inescapable part of daily life and used constantly by government officials, clerics, opposition activists, business owners and workaday Iranians alike.

The official reason for the ban was economic nationalism: Iranian officials say they want to promote homegrown apps that could break Telegram's virtual monopoly on social media in a country where authorities tightly monitor internet usage and many websites are inaccessible.

But critics suspect the real reason is to stifle dissent after protests that began last December and spread to scores of cities nationwide, the most significant social unrest in Iran in years.

Telegram, founded by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, is an instant messaging service that has about 200 million users worldwide — one-tenth the number that Facebook has — but has gained popularity because its messages are said to be secure and less vulnerable to hackers. It offers instant messaging as well as channels through which users can broadcast messages, photos and videos to followers.

Iran has tried to control the app before. During the recent protests, Iran banned Telegram and Instagram for several days as it sought to keep the demonstrations from growing. Last year, Iranian security and intelligence agencies arrested some Telegram users, citing national security reasons.

Iranian hard-liners are believed to have been considering a permanent block for months, opening a new rift with the government of President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate who has repeatedly promised to expand Iranians' personal freedoms.

"Having Iranian messaging apps which are capable, secure and cheap and could solve people's problems and cater to their needs would no doubt be a source of pride for all," Rouhani said last week, according to the state-run Iranian Students News Agency.

Rouhani argued against an all-out ban, saying that "the goal of creating domestic software and messaging apps should not be blocking access and censorship, but it should be done with the goal of removing a monopoly among messaging apps."

But Abolhassan Firouzabadi, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Cyberspace Council, the main agency supervising Internet policy, said Telegram was profiting off business in Iran without investing any money in the country.

According to Fars, Firouzabadi referred to Telegram's plans to launch a multibillion-dollar "initial coin offering," a form of crowdfunding using virtual currency.

Telegram "benefits from the Iranian domestic economy for its own purposes and interests," Firouzabadi said. "Telegram is dominating social networks solely in Iran, not anywhere else."

Amid reports that a ban was coming, Iranians have been scrambling to figure out alternative ways of communicating with friends and loved ones. Many said they would continue to use Telegram via proxy servers that often allow users to bypass local blockages, although the telecommunications ministry said it planned to stop that avenue as well.

"I have just started making new channels and groups on WhatsApp and some local apps … and besides, my colleagues and I try to be more active on Instagram," Saman Rastin, a producer of online games in Tehran, said in a phone interview.

Rastin said he also began using Soroush Messenger, the Iranian-made app with about 3 million users that officials hope will be an alternative to Telegram.

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"From my personal view [the Telegram ban] has many negative effects on freedom of choice and business paths, but I think the only good point is that finally we Iranians will have our own messenger apps," Rastin said. "I know that's radical optimism or wishful thinking — but this is what I learned from living in the Middle East, to find good news from any disaster."

Others said the ban was destined to fail — just like a nominal ban on satellite dishes, to keep out foreign television channels, is very rarely enforced.

Mahmoud Sadeghi, a lawmaker who opposes the Telegram ban, posted an animated picture in his Telegram channel of a man futilely sweeping water from a beach as waves crash behind him — arguing that attempts to stop such technologies are futile.

Many Iranians were skeptical of using Soroush or any other app promoted by authorities, worried they could be used for spying.

"Many people like me are looking for a trustworthy proxy server to keep using Telegram," said Goli Radmanesh, a 28-year-old civil engineer, said via Telegram.

"I do not trust any local messenger. People won't trust Iranian apps that are advertised by the regime. It's another example of how top politicians are not trusted either. The theocracy ruling Iran is facing a legitimacy crisis."

The blockage comes as Iran grapples with simmering discontent nationwide over various issues: high unemployment, bank collapses, laws requiring women to cover their hair and environmental degradation. Although security forces quashed major protests in January, small, sporadic demonstrations have continued in many cities.

For the many small-business owners who use Telegram to market their services and communicate with clients, the ban adds to their financial woes.

"The real losers are the many businesses linked with Telegram — it will worsen the existing unemployment problem," said Reza Rahmani, a 30-year-old video game producer, said on Telegram.

Arash Mehrkesh, part of an eight-person company that produces educational apps, said on Telegram that the company had built a community of 250,000 users primarily through Telegram, where it offers after-sale services and answers questions.

"If Telegram is filtered, access to our clients will become difficult and time-consuming and we may lose many users of our applications," Mehrkesh said. "Above all we will not be able to find new clients as easily as before."

Special correspondent Mostaghim reported from Tehran and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.

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Shashank Bengali covers Iran for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @SBengali

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