By Golnaz Esfandiari and Carl Schreck, RFE/RL
Arenowned Russian Internet entrepreneur who created a mobile messaging app popular in Iran said Iranian authorities temporarily blocked the app after his company refused their demands to help them “spy on their citizens.”
Pavel Durov, the enigmatic founder of Russia's most popular social-networking site, Vkontakte, said on Twitter on October 20 that Iran’s Ministry of Information and Communications Technology demanded that the app, called Telegram, provide the ministry “with spying and censorship tools.”
“We ignored the demand, they blocked us,” Durov wrote.
Late October 20, after word of the blockage was publicized, Durov tweeted that "Telegram traffic is no longer limited in Iran after a week's interference and...2 hours full blocking."
The head of the public relations office of Iran’s Communications ministry Mohammad Reza Farneghizad told the semi-official ISNA news agency that his ministry has not taken any measure to filter Telegram.
Iranian officials said earlier this year that the country could allow Internet giants to offer their services if they respect Iran’s “cultural rules and policies,” and that the Islamic republic does not “tolerate” social networking sites that “allow the sharing of “immoral content.”
Telegram, which functions as messaging and content sharing application, has become popular in recent months among Iranians, who use it to communicate with each other and also share materials like pornography and political satire. Many of Iran’s government-controlled news agencies have also embraced the platform, using it to advertise their stories.
But Durov said that pornographic Internet content is “not an issue” in Iranian authorities’ purported blocking of Telegram, which the Vkontakte founder said in June has been "the most downloaded app in Iran for some time."
“They want to read and censor private messages,” Durov tweeted.
Hossein Ramezani, Iran’s deputy cyberpolice chief for international affairs, told reporters that authorities have asked Yahoo, Google, and Telegram to “work with us in the prevention of criminal acts,” the semi-official news agency ISNA reported September 2.
Following those comments, Durov, who in the past has refused to comply with Russian authorities’ requests to hand over Vkontakte user data, wrote on Twitter that Telegram "has not entered any agreements with any government on this planet. No plans to."
Iran maintains tough Internet censorship rules, blocking thousands of websites and monitoring the online activities of its citizens, including activists and critics of the establishment. Several activists say they have been interrogated, harassed, and sentenced to jail terms due to their online activities.
One journalist in Tehran told RFE/RL last month that that the number of Telegram users has grown significantly because the app is believed “to be secure for users, especially for people like us who discuss sensitive political issues.”
Nariman Gharib, a London-based Internet researcher, said earlier this year that some of Telegram’s features had been restricted in Iran, apparently in connection with demands by Iranian authorities.
Some tools on the app “have become inactive for Iranian users,” and “some [pornography] bots have also become inactive," Gharib told RFE/RL last month.
He said most of the blocked features appear to deal with the sharing of pornography. Yet he said that the development has led to concerns that further restrictions could follow.
Following Durov’s claim on October 20 that Iranian authorities had blocked Telegram, Internet researcher Colin Anderson told RFE/RL that Tehran has a record of making social media applications “unusable.”
“This is one of the thing that the Iranian government has a history of doing which is not necessarily completely blocking access to, but making a service unusable,” said Anderson, who is based in Washington, D.C. “So it’s a more subtle way of getting what you want, which is to coerce people into other services or disrupt access.”
He added that Iran did the same to Viber, a mobile app that allows users to both send messages or make phone calls. He said that was one of the reasons many in Iran switched to Telegram.
Iranian President Hasan Rohani’s administration “had fought continued access to Viber, but what had happened is that Viber wasn’t blocked, but [telecom providers] made Viber so slow that you couldn’t really make long phone calls," Anderson said.
“So the intent is a more opaque form of censorship: just make it so unusable that no one wants to use it,” he said, adding that loading content on Telegram has become slower.
Following reports of disruptions of access to Telegram in Iran earlier this year, deputy communications minister Mahmud Khosravi said authorities had contacted Telegram.
“We sent an official letter to Telegram and told them your network has a problem in Iran. Let’s sit and solve the problems,” Khosravi was quoted by the hard-line Tasnim news agency as saying in July.
Weeks later, Communications Minister Mahmud Vaezi told the semi-official Mehr news agency that Telegram officials had “apologized” to Iran over its “offensive” stickers.
The International Campaign For Human Rights In Iran, a New York-based rights group, said in August that global Internet and technology companies should avoid putting Iranian users at risk by sharing their private information with the Iranian government.
The group also called on Telegram earlier this year to issue periodic transparency reports to assure Iranian users that their online data are safe.
Durov's programming work led to the creation of VKontakte, a Russian-language social networking site that is similar to Facebook but is far more popular in Russia.
Last year, Durov said he sold his 12-percent stake in Vkontakte amid pressure from Russian authorities, who asked him shut down a page on the networking site dedicated to opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. Officials also asked him to handover data about users tied to the 2014 Euromaidan protests that led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, he said.
According to his social media profiles, Durov now appears to do most of his work in Western Europe, rather than Russia. He did not immediately respond to messages sent to him via Twitter and Facebook.
"It is interesting that no one is surprised that the [Iranian] establishment has officially [attempted] to enter into talks with Telegram to spy on us,” one Persian-language Twitter user wrote.
Another Persian-language Twitter user asked with a smiley whether anyone had any suggestions for a replacement for Telegram.
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