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Iranian Officials Trade Barbs In Dispute Over Internet Censorship 

Some 40 million Iranians are believed to use the Telegram messenger app on their smartphones. (file photo)

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 Iran’s 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.

Telegram CEO Pavel Durov
Telegram CEO Pavel Durov

Vaezi responded by accusing Khoramshahi of using IS's alleged use of Telegram for communications as an excuse to push for more social-media restrictions.

"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 said.

"[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 thinking."

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 wasn’t for this government, even our friends here today couldn’t 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 country’s politicians, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, maintain their own channels on Telegram.

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 later released.

The hard-line judiciary also blocked voice-call features on the messaging app.

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, Iran’s 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 won’t be able to put the privacy of our users at risk, even if rejecting such demands means getting blocked in some countries," he added.

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."

"It basically means that Khoramabadi is not interested in resolving what the Iranian establishment sees as a problem," Rashidi said. "Rather, he’s 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.

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.