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Iranian Expats Launch Own Telegram 'With Built-In Proxy' To Counter Filtering At Home

Some 40 million people are believed to use the Telegram app in Iran. (illustrative photo)
Some 40 million people are believed to use the Telegram app in Iran. (illustrative photo)

Two Iranian IT experts have launched a modified version of Telegram to help their countrymen get around Tehran's latest attempt to block the wildly popular messaging app.

Amin Sabeti and Nariman Gharib's version integrates the software Psiphon for those who aren't already using that circumvention tool or a virtual private network (VPN) to evade snoopers.

Iran's powerful judiciary ordered Telegram to be blocked on April 30, saying its use foments unrest in the country.

Telegram is thought to be used by around half of Iran's 82 million people.

'Digital Resistance'

Sabeti and Gharib say the aim of their Telegram DR -- the "DR" is for Digital Resistance -- is to help fellow Iranians fight Internet censorship and access uncensored information.

"One reason we did this is to demonstrate that the idea that [authorities] can block Telegram in a way that no one will be able to access it is very wrong," Sabeti told RFE/RL in a telephone interview on May 2.

Their Telegram DR is now available for Android users, although they acknowledged that the speedy rollout prompted by Iranian authorities' swift crackdown has left it slightly buggy. Sabeti said on May 2 that it had been downloaded 1 million times since its launch the previous day.

A version for iPhones is due to be released in the coming days, they told RFE/RL.

Half of Iran's population are believed to use Telegram for everything from sharing videos with family and friends to conducting business to engaging in political debate, the latter a potentially perilous activity in a country whose clerical leadership routinely jams outside media and sets out "red lines" for public discourse.

The judiciary said the ban was prompted by "various complaints" and "thousands of open cases" related to the use of Telegram and demands by the nation's security services to "confront" its illegal activities.

"The blocking of the Telegram app should be carried out so as to prevent users from accessing it with VPN or any other software," the order published by the judiciary-affiliated Mizanonline news agency said.

Iranians display their smart phones using the Telegram messenger application. (file photo)
Iranians display their smart phones using the Telegram messenger application. (file photo)

The Iranian ban was issued after top state officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, announced they were quitting Telegram in the national interest.

It also came after Iran banned the use of Telegram by government bodies.

The filtering has angered many Iranians, including Sabeti, 32, and Gharib, 29, two émigrés who now reside in the United Kingdom.

Sabeti said he and Gharib accelerated the release of their app with a built-in proxy once Iran banned Telegram.

"We didn't expect the ban to take place so quickly," Sabeti said, adding that they are working to resolve the issues.

He also said that Telegram DR is for those Iranians who are unfamiliar with the use of anti-filtering tools.

"It's one of many options," he said. "Those who already have Psiphon or other anti-filtering tools don't need this application."

Many Iranians are savvy in the ways of circumvention, having dueled for years with public bans on social media like Facebook and Twitter despite their widespread use among Iranian political elites.

After an eruption of street protests in December and January, Iranian officials have pressed publicly for "homegrown" software and a more aggressive digital strategy "to secure" cyberspace in the face of foreign "enemies."

The hard-line Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), blasted Telegram DR, saying it wasn't officially released by Telegram and that users should not trust it.

Eavesdropping Fears

Fars suggested that Iranians should instead use domestic apps that have been promoted in recent months, although public distrust of such tools appears to be high over fears that they will allow eavesdropping by the state.

"There are currently numerous domestic messengers active in the country, and any user can find out about their background, owners, and developers with a simple search," Fars said.

Gharib reacted by saying that the Fars suggestion came as no surprise.

"IRGC wants to lure in the #Iranian usrs to use the local messaging apps to exert even more control on the lives of Iranians," Gharib said on Twitter.

Authorities temporarily shut down Telegram in January in an effort to contain the antiestablishment protests across the country at the time, but many Iranians kept using it.

Despite the recent latest ban, several users in Tehran told RFE/RL on May 2 that they were still using the app via anti-filtering tools.

The Telegram ban is a blow to President Hassan Rohani, who won office in 2013 and reelection last year promising less censorship and more freedom to Iranians.

Rohani's communications minister criticized the ban via Twitter which is also filtered by Iran, saying the free flow of information cannot be stopped.

"People's access to sources of information cannot be interrupted even when software is [filtered]," Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi tweeted on April 30.

"Even if we ban the use of software, other software will be identified and information will start to circulate freely again," Jahromi wrote.

In Russia, around 10,000 people rallied in Moscow on April 30 to protest authorities' recent blocking of Telegram, chanting that Russian President Vladimir Putin "is a thief." Telegram had fallen afoul of Russian officials over its refusal to give the Federal Security Service (FSB) access to users' private messages.