Iran blocks Sign messaging app after WhatsApp exodus | Enterprise and Financial system Information
Tehran, Iran – The Iranian government blocked Signal after Iranians flooded the messaging platform over privacy concerns from WhatsApp, a company owned by Facebook.
In a tweet, Signal said it had “been working on the censorship of Iran” since the app became the most downloaded content in Iranian app stores.
“The IR censors cannot stop the registration and are now deleting all signal traffic,” the tweet said. “The Iranian people deserve privacy. We haven’t given up. “
On Jan. 14, Signal was removed from Cafe Bazaar, the Iranian version of Google Play, and Myket, another well-known local app store.
“Thank you for understanding our borders,” greeted the Iranians who wanted to download Signal.
The app has been tagged by a filtering committee tasked with identifying “criminal content” headed by the country’s attorney general, which includes representatives from the judiciary, the communications ministry, law enforcement, parliament and the education ministry, among others.
However, the judiciary tried to distance itself from the ban on Tuesday.
Spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaeili said under new boss Ebrahim Raisi since 2019 that the judiciary has “not blocked any media, news agencies or messaging services and is not after the blocking of cyberspace and social messaging services”.
“Safe from state authorities”
This is not the first time the Iranian authorities have been aiming for Signal.
The app had previously been blocked sporadically between 2016 and 2017, but the filtering went largely under the radar as Signal had no significant user base in Iran at the time.
The intelligence service was later silently unblocked, and the authorities never gave an official reason.
According to Mahsa Alimardani, an internet researcher with UK human rights organization ARTICLE19, the signal was used by a number of Iranians during the protests in late 2017 and early 2018 to maintain secure communications.
“Signal has always been promoted as a point of contact for dissidents or activists to protect themselves from government agencies, particularly the United States and their extensive surveillance capabilities,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Before this migration of users unaffected by WhatsApp’s new privacy changes, Signal was already an everyday tool of civil society and activity,” said Alimardani, a PhD student at the Oxford Internet Institute.
Signal is joining a variety of other top social media apps that have been blocked by Iranian authorities, including Telegram, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
The telegram was filtered in May 2018, shortly after protests that broke out in dozen of cities across Iran over economic, political and social ills.
WhatsApp and Instagram are still the only leading non-blocked foreign social media platforms in Iran.
The fact that Signal has been blocked but WhatsApp can still be used has led to speculation by Iranian users on social media that the Iranian government somehow has access to user information on WhatsApp.
Alimardani said the same rumor was circulated via Telegram before its blockade settled it.
“There is no factual basis for this rumor as it is very unlikely that the Iranian authorities will be able to crack down on Facebook’s security capabilities or that Facebook will work with Iran to exchange data,” she said.
Instead, it is more likely that the Iranian authorities will try to limit the number of unblocked apps before Signal gets too big in Iran.
Will the ban work?
With years of experience in dealing with internet restrictions by Iranian authorities and those imposed by international companies as a result of sanctions, Iranians have become familiar with circumvention tools.
Many Iranians regularly use virtual private networks (VPNs), which mask users’ IP addresses to gain access to blocked content, including social media.
Although telegram has been banned for almost two years, it is still used by tens of millions of Iranians every day. However, government agencies were legally prevented from returning to the intelligence service.
In this environment, Alimardani said the signaling ban will likely slow its user base growth and keep people on WhatsApp for the time being.
“However, statistics from Telegram have shown that usage decreased immediately after the censorship, but eventually stabilized,” she said. “But the ban slowed planned growth before censorship.”
There is currently no data on how many people are using Signal in Iran, but it is believed that its base is still much smaller than that of Telegram, which has been in use in the country since its release in 2013.
Are there any other restrictions?
Signal filtering has renewed fears about further possible restrictions on internet freedom in Iran.
The Iranian Ministry of Information and Communication has repeatedly tried to distance itself from blocking social media and has stated that it has no authority to make these decisions.
After the authorities blocked internet access across Iran for almost a week during nationwide protests in November 2019, ICT Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said it was not his decision.
The Münster has so far been silent about the filtering of signals.
The judiciary filed charges against Azari Jahromi last week, but released him on bail for allegedly refusing to block Instagram and otherwise restrict other social media.
The ministry said that litigation involving a group of 432 people from Ahwaz over the use of cyberspace in an attack in September 2018 and 150 religious scholars from Kerman for digital “corruption” were among other reasons for summoning the minister.
Regardless of the decision-making, Internet security and digital rights researcher Amir Rashidi believes that the ministry is almost exclusively responsible for the technical implementation of Internet blocking practices in Iran.
Rashidi explained that if an Iranian user wants to use the global internet, their command is first passed to their local internet service provider and then to the Telecommunication Infrastructure Company, which is attached to the ministry, the gateway.
“Internet censorship can be implemented at either level,” he told Al Jazeera.
Rashidi said, as with Telegram, that Signal’s popularity with the Iranian authorities has been dashed.
“When the Iranian government can’t figure out what’s going on or who is doing what, they traditionally fear that people will do something against the government,” he said.
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