On January 15, 2021, a popular messaging app called Signal, crashed globally. After WhatsApp altered its privacy agreement to share its data with Facebook, Signal saw a surge of new users, prompting the crash. This same day, the Iranian government created a ban on the emerging app. In contrast to the regime’s desires, the app still became the most-downloaded app in Iran that day.
These are not uncommon tactics utilized by the Islamic Republic to control the spread of information. Iran, ranked 173/180 on the Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, is no stranger to limiting the privacy of its citizens. The 21st century has been characterized by various media crackdowns including the closing of newspapers, arrests and beatings of journalists, and even internet outage for days at a time.
Signal is not the only app banned in Iran. Both Twitter and Facebook were banned in 2009 after the skeptical election of President Ahmadinejad. In 2018, another and more popular social media app, Telegram, became a new target for the Iranian government after a suspected 50 million Iranians were found to be active on the app. The regime has instead pushed and threatened citizens to shift to a national messaging app called Soroush, to increase surveillance capabilities.
The Soroush app, owned by the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, has been characterized by app developers as posing high privacy and security risks. Furthermore, only accessible with an Iranian SIM card, national ID, and address, it makes it impossible to remain anonymous. A state lead messaging app allows for Iranian security forces to access sensitive and personal data. This prevents possible actions or discussion of opposition by instilling fear into citizens.
Alarmingly, these decisions are not only being made by Iranian clerical elite and security forces. The Majlis, the Iranian parliament, also has tried to push legislation that bans private messaging apps as well. In August 2020, lawmakers created a bill aiming to shift all messaging platforms to state regulated apps, including Soroush. Forty members of the Majlis signed on to this legislation, listing consequences such as fines and prison sentences for anyone who uses messaging apps or VPNs without a proper license. Imprisonment could be from six months to two years, and fines up to $1,900.
Although the Majlis is dominated by conservative regime loyalists more often than not, legislation of this sort remains unsettling. With the Majlis and the President being the only bodies regularly elected by the Iranian people, they play a crucial role in providing lateral accountability by serving their electorate. When the Majlis attempts to enact bills that further disintegrate their constituents’ rights, they decrease their liability and ultimately fail to protect their citizens.
The Islamic theocracy is repressive in nature, as its domestic and foreign policy goals are to export Islam, making little tolerance who oppose. Preventing the spread of information is a common tactic of autocratic regimes as well, but the development of new technologies and the capabilities of encrypted messaging apps of the 21st century create more barriers for the government to navigate. As Iran continues to find new ways to extinguish the voices of empowered Iranian citizens, a big question is often asked: has the government been successful?
In truth, we cannot be sure. External forces, including the United States, enacted the maximum power campaign in 2016, targeted at a complete regime change by suffocating Iranians through intense economic sanctions. As the Iranian economy entered a long recession, citizens took to the street various times to protest against poor conditions caused by the sanctions and the government’s management of the domestic situation. In each of these instances in 2017, 2018, 2019 and in 2020, security forces cracked down quickly to silence the outrage. If the Iranians had the proper protection of private communication networks to organize a movement undetected by the government, there is no telling how powerful the movement could have been.
Without the ability to establish a strong civil society infrastructure, the ability to organize and hold the regime accountable dissipates. Regrettably, Iranians lack these proper democratic tools to determine the direction of their fate peacefully. Iranian journalists and tech experts attempt to provide fellow citizens with VPNs and other means to get around social media bans, but they face high risks of imprisonment and fines.
As the June 2021 Presidential election nears, the role of social media apps in determining the incumbent to be will be crucial, especially in a pandemic environment dominated by internet communication. International sanctions condemning Iran for human rights abuses, including media censorship, have proven to be ineffective in changing the regime’s censorship tactics. If these restrictions remain in place, it will greatly impact how the population receives information on the selected Presidential candidates. Only time will help determine if the population receives enough information to adequately elect the next President of the Islamic Republic.
“Iran.” Reporters Without Borders. 2021. https://rsf.org/en/iran
“Iran Lawmakers Aim to Fully Ban All ‘Foreign’ Messaging Apps.” Iran News. Radio https://en.radiofarda.com/a/iran-lawmakers-aim-to-fully-ban-all-foreign-messaging-apps/30802448.html
“Iran: national messenger apps are the new hallmark of Internet nationalization.” Article 19. October 21, 2018. https://www.article19.org/resources/iran-national-messenger-apps-are-the-new-hallmark-of-internet-nationalisation/
“Iran blocks video and images on Telegram messaging app.” BBC News. April 26, 2018. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-43907246
“Twitter is banned in Iran.” Poynter Institute. Politifact. January 13. 2020. https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/jan/24/facebook-posts/yes-iran-does-ban-twitter/
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 “Iran: national messenger apps are the new hallmark of Internet nationalization.” Article 19. October 21, 2018. https://www.article19.org/resources/iran-national-messenger-apps-are-the-new-hallmark-of-internet-nationalisation/
 “Iran Lawmakers Aim to Fully Ban All ‘Foreign’ Messaging Apps.” Iran News. Radio https://en.radiofarda.com/a/iran-lawmakers-aim-to-fully-ban-all-foreign-messaging-apps/30802448.html