Telegram's new audio messaging feature blocked in Iran

 19 Apr 2017 - 19:53

Telegram's new audio messaging feature blocked in Iran
The Telegram messaging app logo is seen on a website in Singapore November 19, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas White

By Nour Al Ali and Golnar Motevalli / Bloomberg

Iran has blocked access to a new free voice-messaging feature from the popular messaging app Telegram, just days after it was released in the country.

Telegram completed rolling out its free encrypted voice calls to users globally last week. But in a statement on April 17, the company said mobile operators and home internet providers had begun blocking the new feature the previous day.

"We did not receive any communications regarding the reasons, so we have no idea what could stand behind the decision," Telegram said in the statement. "However, the fact that other voice over internet protocol providers in the country are still operating normally clearly suggests that this move is targeting Telegram specifically."

Mahmoud Vaezi, Iran’s Minister of Information and Telecommunications, told reporters that the block is a result of a judicial ruling issued to all phone operators, according to the semi-official Iranian Students’ News Agency.

Users in Iran can still use the service provided both ends use encrypted networks, Telegram added in the statement. Others applications such as Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp and iMessage, and Microsoft Corp.’s Skype have voice call features enabled in the country. WhatsApp calls are generally not blocked in Iran, but this varies between phone operators. Twitter Inc. and Facebook, however, can only be accessed through VPNs.

"Telegram has historically had problems with regulators in some parts of the world because, unlike other services, we consistently defended of our users’ privacy and have never made any deals with governments," said Pavel Durov, the app’s founder, in an April 18 update on his Telegram channel. "In three and a half years of existence to date, Telegram disclosed exactly zero bytes of users’ data to any third-party."

Telegram is a popular platform for citizens in Iran. The app, which is also used for file-sharing, originally became popular in part because of its emphasis on security, and its ability for users to conduct "secret chats" in which messages can be formatted to automatically delete themselves after being viewed.

"Telegram is providing a service that cannot as directly be surveilled as normal telephone calls," said Collin Anderson, an independent researcher focused on Iranian cyber policy.

However, Anderson added that there could be more "banal motivations" for Telegram’s voice feature being blocked. "These restrictions are often economically motivated – the applications cut into the revenue generated by charging for text messages and airtime," he said.

According to Durov, Telegram has some 40 million active users in Iran.