The Iranian government's anxiety over the widespread protests that have roiled the country for the past week may be best shown by one action: the government's decision to censor Telegram, the most popular foreign messaging app still being used by average Iranians.
The country already blocks many of the world's most popular internet services, preventing its citizens from directly accessing news, human rights, and LGBT sites. It blocks popular services like Google, YouTube, Facebook, and the main download page for the Tor Browser, which lets users easily circumvent such restrictions. Tor connections from Iran have nevertheless skyrocketed in the past year.
But Telegram had remained in widespread use until this past weekend, when the government's media monopoly, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, announced it had suspended Telegram and Instagram “to preserve the peace and security of citizens.”
In a tweet — an ironic medium, as Twitter is also banned in Iran — Azari Jahromi, the country's minister of information and communications technology, insisted Monday that the block was only temporary and that rumors to the contrary were rooted in social discontent and pessimism.
Telegram founder Pavel Durov, in a defense of his company's policies, blamed the Iranian government's action on Telegram's refusal to agree with the government's recent request to shut down channels used by peaceful protesters. Even with the blockage, “many are still reaching Telegram via VPN,” Markus Ra, a spokesperson for the company, told BuzzFeed News.
Durov has long expressed a fierce anti-censorship stance, though his company reportedly has previously complied with requests to take down porn bots and remove insulting stickers.
Telegram also touts its end-to-end encryption, meaning every device with Telegram installed has its own encryption keys, which in theory would prevent a government that intercepted Telegram messages from being able to read them. However, cryptography experts have resoundingly criticized Telegram's encryption as insufficiently vetted and say it's possible governments can decipher users' messages.
Instagram declined to respond to a BuzzFeed News question about whether it was actively aiding the Iranian government’s censorship.
How broadly Tehran is interfering with internet access remains uncertain.
Many users from within Iran have reported severe difficulty in accessing any foreign websites, though domestic sites seem unaffected, said Amir Rashidi, who works as an internet security researcher at the Center for Human Rights in Iran, and who has collected dozens of complaints about usage.
“As the protests grow in Iran, the internet is getting worse and worse and worse,” Rashidi told BuzzFeed News.
“Usually it’s the afternoon, when people go out and join the protests,” he said. “Even in working hours, internet is not really that normal. It’s better, but it’s not like other days, where there wasn’t anything. There’s a high disruption.”
On Sunday, President Trump tweeted that Iran “has now closed down the Internet so that peaceful demonstrators cannot communicate.”
However, researchers at Oracle’s Internet Intelligence Team, which tracks global internet outages, say that while Iran might selectively block any number of sites from being accessed directly, the only wholesale internet outage in Iran took place on Monday and lasted about 13 minutes.
“That’s kind of a normal day in Iran, having watched this for a long time, so I don’t know that it’s that significant,” Doug Madory, the team’s director of internet analysis, told BuzzFeed News. “Even the one yesterday, which is pretty big, could be coincidental. I don’t know that a 13-minute event defines what’s going on there.
“All we can basically say is what’s happening in Iran is not like the Egyptian shutdown in January 2011, where they just pulled the plug on everything. We’re not looking at that,” Madory said. “It may give Iranians cold comfort, in the end it may not be that big a distinction, but what Iran is doing is a bit more sophisticated.”