Although these plans have failed to seriously develop and seem to be generally regarded as beyond the country’s capabilities or resources, the latest reports are arguably a step in the direction of the sort of expanded control that the regime authorities aspire to. Reuters reports that Iran’s Supreme Cyberspace Council has issued a statement to the foreign owners of internet messaging apps, ordering that in order to continue operating in the Islamic Republic they will have to move user data into the country in cases where it is currently housed on foreign servers.
This order comes after weeks of controversy regarding the Telegram instant messaging app, which has acquired a great deal of popularity in Iran, largely because of its encryption and associated reputation for relative privacy. Other types of messaging apps are also legal in the country, but their communications are fairly easily monitored by the Iranian internet police. Politically motivated arrests and prosecutions are frequently made on the basis of intercepted conversations or public statements on smartphone applications or social media sites. Facebook and Twitter are both banned in the Islamic Republic but are nonetheless frequently used by Iranian citizens by way of proxy networks. Yet, publicly acknowledged arrests of such users tend to be based on politically or religiously sensitive speech and not on the basis of simple violation of the ban.
Since Telegram became a popular alternative for semi-private online communications, Iranian authorities have apparently been frustrated at the difficulty they’ve faced in attempting to repeat the social media enforcement methods on the new application. By some estimates, fully one quarter of Iran’s 80 million person population is on Telegram, meaning that it represents a potential wealth of information regarding communications that represent political dissent or a cultural challenge to the regime’s Shiite theocracy.
Previously, those authorities attempted to address the Telegram privacy issue directly by asking the company’s CEO to provide Tehran with back-end access to user information and communication logs. It was also initially reported that Pavel Durov had agreed to this request, although that claim was later disputed, raising the possibility that Iranian authorities has issued a false report in order to undermine Telegram’s reputation for security. Last October, Durov claimed that Telegram had briefly been blocked in response to his refusal to make the app vulnerable to Iranian spying.
This account also was disputed, but it certainly is in keeping with the regime’s past behavior. The blockage of Twitter originally came in response to its widespread and notably effective use in organizing protests under the banner of the Green Movement, in the wake of the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Thus, whether last year’s threat to Durov was genuine or just theoretical, it is likely a sign of things to come, especially in light of the recent general order regarding foreign user data.
The Cyberspace Council’s statement seems to be regarded in the media as singling out Telegram once again, but also seems to acknowledge the possibility of similar conflicts arising again with the emergence of new apps and technologies. The order indicates that Telegram and any services that follow it will be subject to bans if they do not comply with the regime’s wishes. But as Reuters points out, this is in many respects an empty threat. As the cases of Twitter and Facebook show, non-compliance by Telegram would not lead to Iranians definitively losing access to the service. Tech-savvy citizens would still be able to use the instant messenger via private networks, and they would retain the same essential privacy that they currently enjoy.
If Iran follows through with its demands and that is the situation in the near future, it seems likely that the only way for authorities to effectively enforce the ban would be to complete the much talked about but seemingly far-fetched plan for an insulated national internet.