Tehran, Iran – The Iranian government decided to block Signal after Iranians flocked to the messaging platform over privacy concerns with Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
In a tweet, Signal said it has been “bypassing Iranian censorship” since the app became the most downloaded content on Iranian app stores.
“Unable to stop recording, IR censors now drop all Signal traffic,” the tweet read. “The Iranian people deserve their privacy. We have not given up.
On January 14, Signal was removed from Cafe Bazaar, the Iranian version of Google Play, and Myket, another well-known local app store.
“We thank you for understanding our limits,” greeted Iranians who wanted to download Signal.
The app was tagged by a screening committee tasked with identifying “criminal content” headed by the country’s Attorney General and made up of representatives from the judiciary, the Ministry of Communications, law enforcement, parliament and of the Ministry of Education, among others.
However, justice sought to distance itself from Tuesday’s ban.
Spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaeili said that under new leader Ebrahim Raisi since 2019, the justice system has “not blocked any media, media or messaging services and has not blocked cyberspace and social messaging services”.
‘Protected from state authorities’
This is not the first time Signal has been targeted by Iranian authorities.
The app was previously blocked sporadically between 2016 and 2017, but filtering largely flew under the radar as Signal did not have a sizable user base in Iran at the time.
The courier service was then quietly unblocked and no official reason was ever given by the authorities.
The signal was used by a number of Iranians during protests in late 2017 and early 2018 in an attempt to maintain secure communications, according to Mahsa Alimardani, an internet researcher at UK human rights organization ARTICLE19.
“Signal has always been touted as the go-to app for dissidents or activists to protect themselves from any state authority, especially the United States and its vast surveillance capabilities,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Prior to this migration of users unhappy with WhatsApp’s new privacy changes, Signal was already a day-to-day tool for civil society and activities,” said Alimardani, a doctoral student at the Oxford Internet Institute.
Signal joins a slew of other prominent social media apps that have been blocked by Iranian authorities, including Telegram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Telegram was filtered in May 2018, shortly after protests that erupted in dozens of cities across Iran over economic, political and social grievances.
WhatsApp and Instagram remain the only major foreign social media platforms not blocked in Iran.
The fact that Signal has been blocked but WhatsApp remains usable has prompted Iranian users to speculate on social media that the Iranian government somehow has access to user information on WhatsApp.
Alimardani said the same rumor started circulating about Telegram before its blockage put it to rest.
“There is no factual basis for this rumor as it is highly unlikely that Iranian authorities will have the capacity to clash with Facebook’s security capabilities, or that Facebook will work with Iran to share data,” he said. she declared.
Instead, she said, Iranian authorities are more likely to try to limit the number of apps unlocked before Signal gets too big in Iran.
Will the ban work?
With years of experience in handling internet restrictions by Iranian authorities and those imposed by international companies due to sanctions, Iranians have become familiar with the circumvention tools.
Many Iranians regularly use virtual private networks (VPNs) that mask users’ IP addresses to access blocked content, including social media.
Despite being banned for almost two years, Telegram is still used daily by tens of millions of Iranians. However, state entities do not have the right to return to the courier service.
In this environment, Alimardani said banning Signal would likely slow the growth of its user base and keep people on WhatsApp early on.
“However, Telegram statistics showed that while usage declined directly after censorship, it eventually stabilized,” she said. “But the ban slowed down the growth expected before the censorship.”
There is currently no data on the number of people using Signal in Iran, but its base is believed to be still much smaller than that of Telegram, which has been used in the country since its release in 2013.
More restrictions to come?
Signal’s filtering renewed fears about more potential restrictions on internet freedom in Iran.
Iran’s information and communications ministry has repeatedly tried to distance itself from the blockade of social media, saying it does not have the power to make those decisions.
After authorities cut internet access across Iran for nearly a week during nationwide protests in November 2019, ICT Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said it was not his decision.
The minister has so far remained silent on Signal filtering.
Justice last week filed a complaint against Azari Jahromi, but released him on bail, for allegedly refusing to block Instagram and otherwise restrict other social media.
The ministry said that the litigation of a group of 432 people from Ahwaz over the use of cyberspace in a September 2018 attack and 150 religious scholars from Kerman over digital “corruption” were among other reasons. of the convocation of the Minister.
Decision-making notwithstanding, Internet security and digital rights researcher Amir Rashidi said the ministry was almost entirely responsible for the technical implementation of Internet blocking practices in Iran.
Rashidi explained that when an Iranian user wants to use the global internet, their order is first routed to their local internet service provider and then to the Ministry-affiliated Telecommunication Infrastructure Company, which is the gateway.
“So at any of the two levels internet censorship can be implemented,” he told Al Jazeera.
Rashidi said, like Telegram, that Signal’s popularity became its downfall with Iranian authorities.
“Traditionally, whenever the Iranian government cannot understand what is going on or who is doing what, it worries that people will do something against the government,” he said.