Iranian Authorities Block Access to Social Media Tools

Iranian Authorities Block Access to Social Media Tools

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“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, said Ms. Dagres. There are 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, she added. “In the last week it has become a key source of information about the protests.”

In a Dec. 31 blog post, Pavel Durov, chief executive of Telegram, which is based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, wrote that the 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.”

Internet traffic is filtered in Iran, where Twitter and Facebook have been banned since 2009.

Credit
Kaveh Kazemi/Getty Images

It was not clear if the block on Telegram would be permanent or temporary, Mr. 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 on 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 capabilities.

Take, for example, the Google App Engine, a service intended 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 use the Google App Engine to conceal their activity within Google’s traffic.

But Google believes that 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,” Mr. Anderson said. Google could be worried that technology would be used 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.

Mr. 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,” said Ms. Dagres.

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

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

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