Messaging app Telegram and Facebook-owned social sharing platform Instagram appear to be being blocked in Iran.
Iran state TV said yesterday that authorities were temporarily blocking the services to “maintain peace”, according to the AP news agency.
The country has seen a rising wave of anti-government protests in recent days and ministers have accused social media of fueling dissent.
On Saturday Iran’s ICT minister, Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi tweeted directly at Telegram founder Pavel Durov — claiming that one of the platform’s channels “is encouraging hateful conduct, use of Molotov cocktails, armed uprisings, and social unrest” and urging Durov to act to “stop such encouragements via Telegram”.
In a post on his Telegram channel yesterday, Durov said the authorities had “imposed a block on Telegram”, adding that it is “not clear whether permanent or temporary”.
He also confirmed that Telegram admins had suspended the channel that Jahromi had been objecting to — naming it as @amadnews — but claimed this was as a result of the channel admins having broken Telegram’s terms of service rules by “calling its subscribers to use Molotov cocktails and firearms against police”.
Responding to Jahromi’s earlier tweet Durov also noted that: “Calls for violence are prohibited by the Telegram rules. If confirmed, we’ll have to block such a channel, regardless of its size and political affiliation.”
Following the suspension of @amadnews, Durov writes that the channel admins were able to “reassemble most of their subscribers (800,000) in a new peaceful channel, which we welcomed” — after apologizing for breaking Telegram’s ToS and pledging “not to promote violence in future”.
At the time of writing neither Instagram nor Telegram could be reached for comment.
Telegram has a large user base in Iran — with Durov stating last year that it has ~40M monthly active users, which amounts to around half the population of the country, and 25M daily active users.
With media censorship a fact of life in Iran, digital services and apps such as Telegram have offered citizens an alternative outlet for accessing information — including, when service blocks are imposed, the capacity for more tech savvy users to use other digital tools (such as proxy servers) to circumvent attempts to restrict access to uncensored content.
However the Iranian government has been pushing for control over foreign messaging platforms — including, in 2016, calling for companies to move their servers to Iran, sparking privacy fears.
Last year Durov was forced to deny that Telegram had moved some of its servers to the country — saying rather it had installed some local caching nodes to speed up download times.
The local CDNs could not in any way aid state censorship of the platform, he asserted.
Iran’s government has also been targeting Telegram channel administrators — issuing a requirement that admins of channels with more than 5,000 members register with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Those not registering risk prosecution. While registered admins expose themselves to the risk of arrest — putting channels under greater pressure to self-censor.
The regime also appears to be cranking up the public pressure on Durov to police content it doesn’t like — such as the now suspended @amadnews channel — though the Telegram founder has been quick to point to counter-examples where the platform has resisted authorities’ demands.
Whether Telegram can continue to walk this line and successfully avoid a permanent block in Iran remains to be seen. (The Indonesian government used blocks last summer to wring content-related concessions out of Telegram, focused on removing ISIS-related channels and improving its local moderation systems.)
Telegram’s actions here, in suspending a popular channel following a state request, have drawn accusations of collusion with the Iranian regime, even as the platform continues to anger the Iranian government by providing an ongoing outlet for uncensored political content.
So Durov looks to be facing the proverbial choice between a rock and a hard place — leaving his critics to decry his technical choices.