In Attempt to Quell Nationwide Protests, Iranian Authorities Block Access to Social Media Tools

Across Iran, citizens have taken to the streets for the last six days, protesting government oppression and the rising cost of goods. Videos coming out of the country show increasingly intense clashes between protesters and riot police. It is reported that 21 people have died since the protests began.

The fight has been taken online, and protesters seek secure channels free from government interference where they can organize. Iran’s government has blocked large portions of the internet, including YouTube, Facebook, and VPN services that can circumvent the block. The block is enforced via a combination of centralized censorship by the country’s Supreme Cybercouncil and local ISP interference, resulting in a haphazard system that can still have devastating effects on any service the regime sees as a threat.

Iran’s most popular encrypted messenger has been Telegram. Although cryptographers have criticized Telegram’s homebrew cryptography, local Iranian users care more about the app’s independence from the United States, as the app’s development team is based in Russia, making it less vulnerable to US government requests. The massive group chats made possible by the app are popular.

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 would only be unblocked if it removed “terrorist” content, said the Iranian telecoms minister on Wednesday, after the encrypted messaging app was blocked amid anti-government protests that swept the country this week.

“I had mail exchanges with the head of Telegram and I told him that the continuation of Telegram’s activities is conditioned on the suppression of terrorist content. The organs of power welcome criticism on social media… but in the current climate, in particular on Telegram, there is propaganda for violent and terrorist actions,” Azari Jahromi told state television.

The government targeted individual users by intercepting account reset messages sent to the user’s phone number.

As protests intensified, Telegram became a tool for organizers and a target for the regime. Telegram suspended the popular Amad News channel on Saturday, for violating the service’s policy against calls to violence. A conversation that recommended protesters attack police with Molotov cocktails was publicly called out by Iran’s Minister of Technology.

However, Pavel Durov, Telegram founder, alleges that the government also requested suspensions for a number of other channels that had not violated the policy on violence. In a Telegram post, Durov said:

“We are proud that Telegram is used by thousands of massive opposition channels all over the world. We consider freedom of speech an undeniable human right, and would rather get blocked in a country by its authorities than limit peaceful expression of alternative opinions.” On Tuesday, in a Twitter post, Durov added that the popular messaging app Whatsapp was still “fully accessible” in Iran.

After Telegram refused, the government placed a nationwide block on the app. The government also banned Instagram. Government representatives insist the bans are temporary and will be lifted once protests subside.

Signal, which offers group chat features with more robust encryption, is a popular alternative among U.S. activists, but Signal is blocked in Iran for an entirely different reason. The app relies on the Google AppEngine to disguise its traffic through a process called “domain fronting.” This makes it difficult to detect Signal traffic amid the other Google requests. Still, it means that wherever Google is unavailable, Signal is unavailable.

Google appears to have blocked Iranian access to AppEngine to comply with U.S. sanctions. U.S. companies face regulations on technology exported to Iran, and it’s unclear how those rules extend to cloud services like AppEngine. The blocks leave organizers with no clear way to coordinate activity across groups that often sprawl to hundreds of thousands of people, but although bans have been proposed in the past, WhatsApp is still available in the country.

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.”

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. 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. 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,” Doug Madory, the team’s director of internet analysis, told BuzzFeed News.