Getting around Iran’s Telegram ban
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On April 30, Tehran’s Culture and Media Court ordered all of Iran’s service providers to block access to Telegram, the most popular social media app in the country – it has an estimated 40 million users in Iran, which is half the population. Our Observers say they’re still able to use Telegram – via VPNs (virtual private networks) that allow them to log on as if they were abroad.
In Iran, Facebook and Twitter have been blocked for a decade. Telegram became both of them for millions of Iranians. They chat via message or voice with family and friends; they join groups of people with common interests; they subscribe to political, lifestyle or sport “channels” that push information to them.
Political hardliners say some Iranians also used Telegram to organise protests, including those that have erupted in the country since December. The Tehran court said the ban follows “many lawsuits” and that Telegram is “disrupting national unity and causing discordance in society”, “becoming a platform of communication for terrorists” and “refusing to cooperate with Iranian officials”.
The ban had been widely expected. The government had already blocked access to Telegram for a month, from December 30, 2017 – two days after protests had broken out.
The court order comes at a time when the government is pushing its homegrown messaging app, Soroush. The Iranian-made app, officially released on April 26, has simple text and voice features similar to Telegram. But many Iranians are afraid the Iranian app will be less secure than Telegram, and could mean their private contacts and chats end up in hands of Iran’s intelligence services.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been leading the charge, shutting down his own Telegram account and switching to Soroush. Government agencies have been barred from using Telegram, with many switching to Soroush too.
“I installed a VPN for the old lady next door”Sima, 35, is a shopkeeper who lives in Karaj, 30km east of Tehran. Like many other Iranians, she plans to use VPNs, virtual private networks, to get around the Telegram ban. The Tehran court ordered providers to block the app in a way that users could not use VPNs to get around the ban. But that doesn’t appear to be working.
First, on April 31, my 3G provider blocked Telegram so I couldn’t get it outside my house. But my Internet service provider at home didn’t block it, so it could still get in via wi-fi. Since the morning of May 1 though, my wi-fi has blocked access to Telegram too.
It’s not a problem for me because for years – like lots of other Iranians – I’ve used VPNs to bypass the censorship. If we want to connect to Twitter, Facebook or many other sites we need anti-proxies. I already had a few different VPNs on my phone, but this time I had to install some new VPNs on my husband’s mobile phone – he’s not a tech geek like me. I installed VPNs for my mother, my father and an old lady in the next-door apartment. She called me and said: “Hello dear, I have no access to “Mamlekateh” [editor’s note: an amateur news channel on Telegram with 350,000 followers]. I heard there’s something you can put on my phone and it works again.” Obviously, I installed some VPNs for her as well. However, switching between VPNs was a little bit too complicated for her. I told her if she needed help she can call me.
After this new ban, Telegram feels like a big city during vacation time: it’s not empty, but it’s quiet. On the family group I’m a member of, it’s just me and one other member posting things. There’s nothing from the other 19 members. Groups with friends are a little better; some of my friends are abroad so they have free access, and most of my friends in Iran have VPNs. Using VPNs is complicated though. We have to turn them off to access certain websites, so when we’re online we’re constantly turning VPNs on and off.
I use Telegram for getting news, and for talking with family and friends. Sometimes I find good stuff to buy as well.
When they block Telegram, it doesn’t stop me or people like me getting information. We find the news on satellite TV, on websites or Twitter, and I can use other apps to talk to my friends and family. They’ve tried to block satellite TV, but everyone has it. They did the same thing with Facebook and Twitter and millions of people use them as well. Yes, it makes it harder to get information, but we are unstoppable!
While no data was immediately available on the impact of the ban, traffic on five popular Persian-language channels was down by 50 to 80 percent the day after it went into effect. According to Iranian media, the month-long blockade in January reduced overall revenues for Iran’s startups by 40 percent.
To the left, a normal feed accessed by a user outside of Iran. To the right, a feed as seen inside of Iran, where users can't connect to Telegram.
“There are many small businesses on Telegram that will fail”Alireza Aghasi is CEO of AdVenture, an Iranian startup that markets and analyses advertising on Telegram:
You can reach millions of Iranians via Telegram. It’s more effective than placing ads on websites. That’s why we launched our startup in 2017. We publish our customers’ ads on channels we work with, then give a report to our customers on the effectiveness of the ads.
The first impact of this new ban will be that many users will leave Telegram. Our main fear is that the government will ban advertising on Telegram one day. If that happens, we will lose our market on Telegram. Before these rumors about blocking Telegram, we were seeing our business go up by 70-80 percent each month. But our revenue was down by 30 percent in the two months after the January ban. Since then, we’ve returned to growth of about 50 percent each month.
We estimate that total spending on advertising on Telegram in Iran is around US$70m (€58m) annually. That could go down by as much as 80 percent if the ban continues.
We predict that under this ban, at least 25 percent of users will still have access to Telegram, so it will still be a big market. We’ll stay in it. Ever since we heard rumours about a ban, we’ve been working on a Plan B. We’re planning to work more on Instagram, using the same strategy: We push ad campaigns for our customers through popular pages on Instagram, and report the effectiveness to our customers.
But there are many small businesses on Telegram that will fail. Based on our surveys, there are 100,000 channels that sell products or services on Telegram. Our forecast is that this part of business on Telegram will be damaged severely. Smaller businesses won’t be strong enough to quickly relaunch on another platform. They weren’t making enough money to build up capital. This will leave about 300,000 people who could end the month with their businesses in real trouble.