Foreign messaging apps are to blame for recent protests across Iran, according to a group of 170 members of Iran’s parliament.
In the wake of widespread demonstrations throughout the country over increasing economic hardships, the MPs want other branches of government to join them in supporting the creation of domestic versions of popular foreign messaging apps.
“In recent months, the enemies of the Iranian nation made maximum use of foreign messaging apps to create insecurity and chaos in Iranian cities,” the MPs wrote in a letter read out in a public session of the parliament January 16.
They claim these apps were also used in the attack on the parliament by Islamic State (IS) militants in June 2017, and must therefore be replaced by domestic equivalents as soon as possible. They also demanded the government do more to prevent the use of anti-filtering software to circumvent existing blocks on apps and websites.
Messaging apps are highly popular in Iran. Nearly 40 million Iranians, half of the country’s population, use the messaging app Telegram for personal and professional purposes.
Media outlets, including foreign-based radio and TV stations such as Radio Farda, have channels on the app through which they reach audiences inside Iran despite a severe Internet censorship regime.
Telegram was temporarily blocked by the government during the recent protests, but could still be accessed via anti-filtering software and proxies, which are widely used in Iran to bypass the censors.
Conservative politicians have been pressuring President Hassan Rouhani to block Telegram permanently, but he has so far resisted the pressure, arguing that thousands of businesses depend on the app.
The proposal to replace apps like Telegram with domestic versions is viewed by many as unrealistic as the quality of Iranian messaging apps is far behind international standards.
In order to fill the gap, Hassan Firouzabadi, head of Iran’s High Council for Cyberspace, announced that the government will provide a $1.25 million loan at zero percent interest to companies developing domestic messaging apps. However, even if a domestic app could compete with international products from a technical standpoint, the other issue is trust, said Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi.
“Due to poisonous propaganda against domestic apps, people do not trust them and think their privacy will be violated or they will face problems, which is not correct,” he said.
But with dozens of Iranians serving prison sentences for criticizing the regime and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei online, privacy fears and reluctance to use government-backed messaging apps are legitimate.