World News

Iranian Authorities Block Access to Social Media Tools

Posted January 2, 2018 8:29 p.m. EST

SAN FRANCISCO — As protests in Iran stretched into their sixth day on Tuesday, Iranian authorities continued to restrict access to social media tools that have become key sources of information to anti-government demonstrators.

Telegram, a messaging app that is widely used in Iran, has been blocked since Dec. 31, while internet access has been sporadically cut off to several cities where protests have taken place, according to cybersecurity researchers monitoring internet activity in the country. Access to other social media platforms like Instagram has also been intermittent.

Social media and messaging apps have become crucial to anti-government protesters around the world, as a means of both organizing and delivering messages to other citizens. Not surprisingly, restricting access to such technology has become as important to government crackdowns as the physical presence of police.

Many social media tools — as well as a number of products that encrypt internet conversations — have long been unavailable in Iran. Twitter and Facebook have been banned since 2009, although many Iranians still find ways to use them. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, even opened a Facebook account. But messaging apps like Telegram, which boasts some level of encryption, report wide usage in the country.

When Iranians took to the streets in 2009 in anti-government protests known as the “Green Revolution,” roughly 1 million Iranians had smartphones. Today, that number is 48 million — more than half of the country’s population.

“Having not just a smartphone, but the best and newest smartphone, is incredibly important to them,” said Holly Dagres, a Middle East analyst and curator of The Iranist newsletter. “They might not have money for food, but they will find money for a phone.”

No app is more popular among Iranians than Telegram, Dagres said. There are between 40 million to 46 million Telegram accounts in Iran.

“The Iranian government is active on Telegram, as is the president, and members of Parliament,” she said. “Iranians use it to sell clothes or find doctors, I don’t think you can underestimate how important it is. In the last week it has become a key source of information about the protests.”

In a Dec. 31 blog post, Pavel Durov, Telegram’s chief executive, wrote that the Dubai-based company had previously complied with requests by the Iranian government to shut down access to “channels” that called for violence during the protests. But, he added, the company “refused to shut down channels of peaceful Iranian protesters.”

It was not clear if the block on Telegram would be permanent or temporary, Durov wrote. In a statement, Iran’s interior minister said that social networks were “causing violence and fear.”

In the past, some Iranians have found ways to get around government restrictions by using tools that evaded Iran’s censorship technology. But economic sanctions imposed upon the country have made access to some of those tools more difficult, said Collin Anderson, a cybersecurity researcher who planned to publish a report this week about Iran’s cyber capabilities.

Take, for example, the Google App Engine, a service designed to be used as a platform for developing and hosting web applications. In countries where they are otherwise banned, messaging apps that encrypt conversations often utilize the Google App Engine to conceal their activity within Google’s traffic.

But Google believes it is not allowed to offer its Google App Engine in Iran because of the sanctions. That makes it tough to offer Iranians apps like Signal, which is commonly used in other countries to protect internet communications from surveillance.

“Google has chosen to adhere to the strictest letter of the law regarding sanctions in Iran, and by doing so they are blocking Iranians from this service,” Anderson said. Google could be worried that technology would be utilized by nuclear scientists in a potential violation of sanctions. But “the reality is that the ban affects everyday Iranians’ ability to use a tool that could keep them safe,” he said.

Anderson argued that Google could white list, or unblock, certain applications like Signal. In doing so, Google could allow the app to become widely available in Iran in a matter of hours.

Google declined to comment on its policies regarding the use of its technology in Iran.

Sanctions have also forced many Iranians to use smartphones and applications that have been jailbroken, a term used when a manufacturer’s restrictions are removed to allow a user to install unauthorized software. But jailbroken phones and apps cannot be updated, leaving their users open to hackers and government monitors that take advantage of bugs in outdated software.

“Iranians are tech-savvy but by using jailbroken phones they leave themselves really vulnerable,” Dagres said.

The communication crackdown prompted an online outcry that included President Donald Trump, who posted on Twitter over the weekend that Iran had “closed down the internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate. Not good!”

Dagres argued that tweets from officials in other countries do little, but allowing access to more communications tools would help protect protesters. As it is, she said, Iranians have proved to be resourceful in finding ways to communicate.

“Where there is a will, there is a way,” Dagres said. “Iranians have been living under sanctions for years, and they have always found a way to get online.”