Iranian Officials Trade
Barbs In Dispute Over Internet Censorship
July 27, 2017
Iranian officials have traded barbs in a public dispute over the hugely
popular messaging app Telegram.
Hard-line conservatives have long pushed for more restrictions on the
Telegram app, which, according to its CEO Pavel Durov, has 40 million
active users among Iranís 80-million population. The government of
President Hassan Rohani, a relative moderate who has promised Iranians
less censorship, appears to be resisting the pressure.
On July 26, the deputy state prosecutor in charge of cyberspace,
Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, threatened Communications Minister Mahmud Vaezi
with a lawsuit if he "continues ignoring juridical orders on blocking
social-media channels with criminal content," he told reporters,
according to Iranian media.
Khoramabadi, the secretary of the state committee in charge of online
censorship, cited a Telegram channel operated by the opposition group
Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), considered a terrorist group by
Iran, and another by the opposition media outlet amadnews as examples of
channels whose blockage had been requested.
"A juridical order has been issued to block these channels; however,
they have not been blocked," Khoramabadi was quoted as saying by the
hard-line Tasnim news agency.
Khoramabadi claimed that the extremist group Islamic State (IS), which
claimed responsibility for the deadly June 7 attack on the Iranian
parliament in Tehran, had used Telegram to coordinate the attack.
"It is not acceptable for Iranians that IS terrorists held their
communications through Telegram to carry out a terrorist attack on the
parliament, and security bodies had no information about the issue
because Telegram cannot be controlled," Khoramabadi was quoted as saying
by the hard-line Tasnim news agency.
Vaezi responded by accusing Khoramshahi of using IS's alleged use of
Telegram for communications as an excuse to push for more social-media
"He should assume a clear position; one day he says Telegram app's
servers must move to Iran, and then goes on to say that their transfer
would be tantamount to espionage and infiltration," Vaezi was quoted as
saying by Iranian media.
"It is clear that the issue lies elsewhere, and he is not happy when I
say that his thinking is geared more toward blocking cyberspace," Vaezi
"[Khoramabadi] claims that no indigenous [mobile- messaging] services
have been established and that the Communications Ministry has neglected
to fulfill its role," Vaezi added. "He is gravely mistaken. He is well
aware of the good steps undertaken by the ministry and knows well the
many obstacles we face -- the greatest obstacle being his way of
Iran is among the world's most prolific Internet censors. Tens of
thousands of websites, including news sites, are blocked. Many
journalists, bloggers, and activists have been arrested and harassed in
recent years for their online comments and activities.
Vaezi said earlier this year that his ministry would not give in to
"pressures" to block Telegram ahead of the May presidential vote. He did
not indicate where such pressures originated.
Rohani, who was reelected to a second presidential term in May, said
during his reelection campaign that he had fought hard against those
seeking to enforce more restrictions on social media.
"If it wasnít for this government, even our friends here today couldnít
have campaigned on the Internet," he said during a televised debate that
included conservative candidates.
Both Rohani and his main rival, hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, extensively
used the Internet and social media, including Telegram and Instagram, to
spread their messages and attract voters.
Many Iranians use Telegram for messaging purposes, and it is also a
popular way of exchanging news and information.
The app allows users to create channels where they can send comments,
articles, pictures and videos, including those blocked in Iran on
YouTube, to an unlimited audience.
Iranian media outlets, and many of the countryís politicians, including
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, maintain their own channels on
In the run-up to the May vote, the administrators of a number of
pro-reform and pro-government Telegram channels were arrested. Some were
The hard-line judiciary also blocked voice-call features on the
In March, Prosecutor-General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri claimed that
between 16,000 to 20,000 Telegram channels were blocked each week. But
he added that blocking alone is not enough, suggesting that Iran should
work on developing its own national network and mobile app.
Iranian authorities have recently appeared to be pressuring Telegram to
move its servers to Iran. Such a move could allow them to have better
control over the app, its content, and its users.
Last week, Iranís hard-line Fars news agency quoted Deputy
Communications Minister Nasrollah Jahangard as saying that Telegram had
agreed to move its servers to Iran.
But in a message on his own Telegram channel, company CEO Durov
dismissed the claim as a "weird rumor."
"The idea of a privacy-oriented messaging app Telegram moving its
servers to a country with a history of Internet censorship is absurd and
is hardly worth commenting on," Durov wrote.
"We wonít be able to put the privacy of our users at risk, even if
rejecting such demands means getting blocked in some countries," he
Amir Rashidi, an Internet security researcher with the New York-based
Center for Human Rights in Iran, says Khoramabadi and his hard-line
allies appear to be pushing for Telegram to be blocked.
He says Khoramabadi had said last year that Telegram's servers must be
transferred to Iran.
On July 26, however, Khoramabadi suggested that the transfer of
Telegram's servers to the country risked making alleged "espionage and
infiltration" activities "systematic."
basically means that Khoramabadi is not interested in resolving what the
Iranian establishment sees as a problem," Rashidi said. "Rather, heís
after shutting Telegram down. In fact, his issue is his animosity toward
the Internet: He wants to do all he can to stop these services in Iran."
Rashidi added, however, that it would be very difficult for Iran to
block Telegram as the country has no alternative to offer to the
millions of Iranians who use the app on a daily basis.
"Even those who are considered the theoreticians of this establishment
-- clerics and others who often appear on state television to comment on
alleged infiltration [by foreigners] -- even those who have a much
harder line than the establishment use Telegram," he said.