The anti-government protests which swept through Iran in December 2017 were met with heavy-handed “temporary” blockings of Telegram and Instagram, both seen as threats to the establishment by authorities during the protests. The uprising which erupted on December 28 2017 marked the biggest demonstration of economic discontent in the country since 2009. The Iranian authorities’ blocking of Instagram and Telegram — to “maintain tranquility” — in reality sought to throttle information exchange between citizens relating to protests, violating international, access to information standards. The Telegram block ran from 30 December 2017 to 13 January 2018 and appeared to confirm fears that the Rouhani administration are backsliding on their promises for greater transparency and internet freedoms. But more worryingly, new information from several sources suggest that government throttling of Telegram was not limited to the days of the protests, but continued after the block was lifted.
With around 45 million users in Iran, Telegram is widely seen as Iranian citizens’ primary communication platform. For a country of 50 million users online (and a population of 80 million) this number is striking. Telegram’s public channels boast a wide array of topics, both political and quotidian, with some linked to opposition diaspora groups that would be censored on other platforms. While the temporary ban has been widely acknowledged, less well-known evidence indicates that the Iranian government throttled — or slowed connection speeds — to Telegram after it had lifted the block. This new information heightens concerns around the Iranian government’s agenda to control and tighten the net. We need to understand exactly what happened.
Blocking of Telegram violated Iranian rule of law
The government’s two-week ban on Telegram sparked concerns that initiatives for a more open internet — as promised by Rouhani — are being setback. One of their greatest achievements in promoting Internet freedom can be seen by the administration’s efforts to keep Instagram and Telegram uncensored in the face of more conservative and hardline powers. But given the recent ban and subsequent throttling of Telegram, it seems increasingly unlikely that the government will honour their transparency commitments and reopen platforms like Twitter that have been blocked since 2009.
As well as violating international law, the Telegram and Instagram blockings of 2017/2018 also violated Iranian law, being imposed by security agencies outside of official laws and protocols. According to Iran’s Computer Crimes Law and its multi-agency Supreme Council of Cyberspace, multiple authorities should jointly decide on such actions. However statements made by the Minister of Information Communication and Technology, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi indicated that the decisions to block platforms were made by the Supreme National Security Council alone, with arbitrary powers to decide what is a national security concern or not, which is problematic. The use of communication applications such as Telegram and Instagram should be always seen as tools that enhance the freedom of expression and access to information of Iranians, as enshrined in Article 19 of ICCPR.
Telegram restrictions continued after the protests
After the block on Telegram was removed on 13 January 2018, user reports indicated slow connections over the application. Pavel Durov, CEO of Telegram, confirmed this to be the case in a 15 January 2018 Tweet:
Data from the University of Tehran’s social lab also demonstrated that the number of posts on Telegram’s Persian public channels, and the number of views on these posts, struggled to resume to pre-blocking levels (the maroon area is the period of blockage). Levels only resumed to previous numbers around 20-21 January 2018.
The yellow line represents the number of posts; the blue represents the number of views on posts. The pink section represents the period where blocking occurred from 31 December 2017 to 13 January 2018. The period following the blocking appears to struggle to return to the levels of views and content shared on Persian Telegram channels. Previous decreases were caused by events such as earthquakes. Data originally collected from the University of Tehran Social Lab and visualized by ARTICLE19.
Furthermore, test results from the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), an initiative that uses probes to test the nature of Internet censorship around the world, also reported a slow return on test times when they probed for censorship results from the Telegram app and web version within Iran.
The period following the block (the blue dots that end when the censorship ended on 13 January 2018) shows slower connection speeds, correlating to statements by users, Telegram’s CEO Durov, and other user statistics. Graph produced by Arturo Filasto, the co-founder and lead software developer for OONI.
What does this all mean?
Telegram itself has released no data in follow-up from Durov’s 15 January 2018 statement, compounding concerns about their lack of transparency in documenting government interference on their platform. The data from the University of Tehran and the OONI probes are not scientific evidence, but combined with anecdotal users reports, they strongly suggest that authorities were continuing to limit Telegram’s use after the ban was lifted, further violating access to Internet obligations made by the Rouhani administration. The government itself has made no official statements on whether or not they were throttling connections. On 17 January 2018, Minister Jahromi tweeted that he was meeting with the Supreme Council for Cyberspace to coordinate their policy on digital economy, in the wake of the effects of filtering on businesses. Users started to question the Ministry’s role in the slow download speeds, with no response from the typically vocal Minister (see below).
Minister Jahromi on 17 January tweets: “After hearing from the Supreme Council of Cyberspace today, it was approved by the Ministry of Communications, with the formation of a working group consisting of the Minister for Economy, a deputy of the scientific community, with the presence of the National Cyberspace Center, will prepare within a month the document on the strategy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in developing the digital economy, and submit to the government for approval.” In response, one of Jahromi’s followers asked “Mr. Minister, is the Ministry of ICT deliberately slowing down the download speeds for pictures and films on Telegram?” obtaining no response.
Given this evidence, it is imperative that Iran’s Ministry of ICT, an institution elected to represent Iranian people’s concerns, transparently document the means and extent of efforts made to control online communication. All branches of the government adhere to international human rights standards which condemn interruptions to access of information online. We also call on Telegram to disclose any evidence they have, as alluded by Durov’s 15 January tweet, of government disruptions to their services.