Iran Joins Russia’s FSB In Fight Against Internet Freedoms

September 28, 2017

On September 26 Iranian authorities opened a criminal case against Telegram CEO Pavel Durov. Iranian Prosecutor General of Tehran Abbas Jafari-Dolatabadi claimed that Telegram was being used by ISIS (a banned organisation in Russia) as a mean of communication.  Iranian authorities also claimed that the messaging app helps to distribute child pornography, to sell drugs and has been used in human trafficking.

Telegram is an app similar to WhatsApp, launched back in August 2013 by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov and his brother.  Durov is also the man behind Russia’s alternative to Facebook – Vkontakte. In 2016 Telegram announced that it has 100 million monthly active users with 350,000 new users daily, delivering 15 billion messages every day.

Pavel Durov does not live in Iran and therefore it is hard to understand how Iranian authorities will achieve their goal.  He was shocked by the Iranian claim and on his Twitter he said: “We are actively blocking terrorist and pornographic content in Iran. I think the real reasons are different.” He also stated that every day over 1,000 channels and chats with porn and terrorist content are blocked in Iran.

Iran is known for its extremely strict censorship of social media with Facebook and Twitter being banned almost since day one and is available only by using virtual private networks. However, Telegram still operates openly. During the presidential elections earlier this year Telegram was constantly used to share political information. Telegram has always been popular among activists as it is highly encrypted and has an option of messages being “self-destructed”.

However, this is not the only complaint Telegram received this year about its messenger app being used among terrorist groups. After the underground terror attack in Saint Petersburg on April 3, the FSB claimed that terrorists used messenger to communicate with their organisers abroad.

Attacks on Telegram began much earlier in the summer of 2016 with the launch of “Yarovaya’s law” – a set of anti-terror measures that are mostly related to cyber security. The following law requires all network operators and providers to store personal information about their users for over half a year and give the following data to the law enforcement agencies when they request it. Information that is required to be provided includes: login details, name and surname, passport number, address, languages person speaks, IP address and close circle of friends. However, to provide what is requested, equipment that is valued in the trillions of rubles is required.

In May, Roskomnadzor demanded that Durov present all necessary data about Telegram in order to include it in the register of information dissemination organizers and threatened to block Telegram messenger in Russia. Later, FSB head Alexander Zharov confirmed that they had received all the necessary data and that the messenger “began to work in the legal field of the Russian Federation.”

Durov stated that they are not planning “to implement unconstitutional and technically impossible laws set out by Yarovaya, as well as other laws incompatible with the protection of privacy and Telegram’s privacy policy.” He also claimed that “giving our permission to be in the register we are not taking any other responsibilities, except of being listed there. Working together with Russian regulators, we can promise only the same level of cooperation as with other countries: cooperative work in order to delete public materials related to terror propaganda, drugs, calls for violence and child pornography, as well as working on stopping spam.” He concluded that “if Telegram is going to be banned in Russia, this will happen not because we refused to give information about company.”

Telegram’s London office receives frequent letters from the FSB who state that the company is “violating the obligation to submit to the federal security services the information required to decode the received, transmitted, delivered and (or) processed e-mails.”

On his VKontakte page Durov posted: “From now, I can’t visit Iran anymore as Teheran’s prosecutor has initiated a criminal case against me. Around 40 million people in Iran use Telegram and throughout years of work we never blocked any political channel and never gave even a bite of personal information. In Russia Telegram has 10 million users. And so far it can be seen that Russia wants to cooperate with Iran in terms of pursuing a criminal case in Telegram’s direction. As a result of non-compliance with unconstitutional laws, the FSB is formulating an administrative prosecution against us, which according to lawyers will inevitably lead to a court trial.”

TASS news agency reported that Vladimir Putin’s advisor on Internet-related issues, German Klimenko said yesterday that “sooner or later Durov will be forced to cooperate and institutionalize himself in Russia or elsewhere”.

The close relationship between Russia and Iran could be playing a huge role in the Telegram affair. Since very early on both countries have been close friends, even more so in recent years when both regimes share dictatorial qualities.  Therefore the fact that Iran has joined in with the Russian FSB’s wishes to bring charges against Telegram is hardly surprising.

In July 2017, Iran claimed that Telegram has moved some of its servers to Iran. However, company CEO Pavel Durov denied that following fact. For foreign-based social networks to operate its servers have to be inside the country. For this reason, Facebook and Twitter are banned in Iran and can be accessed by using virtual private networks.

Durov said: “Refusal of encryption will make millions of people defenseless from hacker attacks and blackmail by corrupt officials. Moreover, the weakening of encryption in all messengers will lead to the undermining of the national security of the country as whole, as in this case the foreign special services will inevitably have access to all correspondence of Russian citizens. At the same time, the risk of terrorist attacks will not disappear as Paris cases show. Disposable phones and messages without any encryption is enough to carry an attack.”

In an interview with The Baffler, Pavel Durov talked about how the FBI forced Telegram to cooperate. He stated that since he sold his share of “VKontakte” in 2014 and moved away from Russia, US law enforcement agencies began to take an interest in him.  The FBI had several questions about his cooperation with the Russian government in relation to their demands to provide personal information to the security services. “I have provided a small amount of information that has already been distributed in the media,” – claimed Durov.

Cases where the security services are forcing social media networks to cooperate are not a new phenomenon, but the Telegram case certainly has a special significance in Vladimir Putin’s domestic strategy.  The fight for freedom of speech on the internet is a losing battle in Russia, and the next few years will be a critical for the future of the country’s technology industry.

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