Future Tense

After Iran Lifted a Ban on Telegram, It Continued to Throttle Access

Iranian pro-government protesters take part in a march held after the weekly Friday prayers in central Tehran on Jan. 5.
Iranian pro-government protesters take part in a march held after the weekly Friday prayers in central Tehran on Jan. 5. ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

A version of this piece originally appeared on the website of Article 19, a digital rights organization.

From Dec. 30, 2017, to Jan. 13, at the height of this winter’s protest movement in Iran, there was a temporary ban on both Instagram and the messaging app Telegram. Although it only lasted two weeks, the ban had big implications in Iran, where the IP-based messaging app is immensely popular. Telegram dominates the messaging-app market inside of Iran and is seen as the central communication platform for Iranians. More than 50 million Iranians (out of a total population of 80 million) have internet access, and 40 million are on Telegram. Telegram’s public channels boast a wide array of topics, both political and quotidian, including opposition diaspora channels, which would ordinarily be censored on other platforms.

While the temporary ban was widely acknowledged, new evidence indicates that the government throttled or slowed connection speeds to the platform in the days after it lifted the block on Telegram. This adds a new layer of concern to the issue of Iran’s attempts to control and tighten the net.

The ban on Telegram and the suspected throttling cast doubt on President Hassan Rouhani’s promises to open up the internet in Iran. One of the Rouhani administration’s greatest achievements in promoting internet freedom has been keeping platforms like Instagram and Telegram uncensored, despite the efforts of the more conservative and hard-line elements of leadership in the country. The fact that Instagram and Telegram have been caught in the censorship web casts doubt on whether the Rouhani administration will actually be able to reopen platforms such as Twitter that have been blocked since they were used to organize protests in 2009.

The decision to block Telegram was imposed by various Iranian security agencies working outside the bounds of official law. According to provisions of the Computer Crimes Law and the multiagency body of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, several authorities are required to review and approve such decisions, including people from within the elected government of the Rouhani administration. Statements by Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi later indicated the decisions were made solely by the Supreme National Security Council—a body tasked to protect the country’s sovereignty, national interests, and Islamic revolution. The council can—and often does—arbitrarily override other processes in the name of national security.

Once the block on Telegram was removed on Jan. 13, users reported slow connections over the application. Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov confirmed this to be the case on the platform in a Jan. 15 tweet:

Data from the University of Tehran’s social lab demonstrated that the number of posts on Persian public channels and the number of views on these posts struggled to return to the same levels after the block was removed. Levels only returned to previous numbers around Jan. 20, as you can see in the chart below. The section in pink represents the period of blocking. Previous decreases were caused by things like earthquakes.

Data from University of Tehran Social Lab.
Data from University of Tehran Social Lab, visualized by ARTICLE19.

The Open Observatory of Network Interference, an initiative that uses remote probes to test for technical internet censorship around the world, found similar results when it probed for censorship results from the Telegram app and web version within Iran.

Telegram itself has released no data about activity in Iran since Durov’s Jan. 15 statement, in keeping with its characteristic lack of transparency in documenting government interference with its platform. (Telegram did not respond to questions from Slate.)

The data from the University of Tehran and the OONI probes are not exact science. But when combined with anecdotal user reports, they give a strong indication that authorities continued to limit the application’s use after the ban was lifted, in further violation of promises that the Rouhani administration has made about internet access.

The government itself has made no official statements on whether it is throttling connections, even as many users were reporting that slow download speeds were posing hurdles to their business dealings. On Jan. 17, Minister of Information and Communications Technology Jahromi tweeted that he was meeting with the Supreme Council for Cyberspace to coordinate policy on the digital economy, in the wake of the effects of filtering on businesses. Users started to question the ministry’s role in the slow download speeds, but they received no response from Jahromi, who is typically rather vocal.

Just because this throttling is not surprising in a country like Iran does not mean it’s fine or that we should ignore it. Instead, we need to call out the government’s role in creating these restrictions. Minister Jahromi and the Rouhani administration position themselves as progressives determined to improve internet access, but it seems they are still complicit in restrictions. While speeds and access to Telegram appear to have returned to normal, it could happen again, so long as the Iranian government seems content to circumvent procedures in place to protect citizens’ rights. Pointing out the hypocrisy of a government that says it wants to increase internet access but then impedes it, and censors Twitter but permits accounts for government officials, is critical in efforts to demand freedoms online.

While Telegram is now accessible, both the government and the company should put in place mechanisms of accountability and process to ensure that Iranians have access to information—regardless of politics or company policy.