The messaging app Telegram might soon become the latest victim of Iran's censorship-happy government.
Iran has a long history of applying tight internet censorship and regulations. The country's internet is so heavily censored that it's popularly known as the Filternet, and the government has routinely blocked apps that allow Iranians to share information and communicate outside of the government's purview, such as Twitter and Facebook, which have been blocked since 2009.
Telegram has been suffering disruptions in the country for weeks, according to researchers, and Telegram itself reported on Monday that local Iranian network providers "are limiting Telegram traffic in Iran."
But Pavel Durov, the founder of Telegram and Vkontakte, told Motherboard that it seems that "the reason to limit Telegram's traffic have more to do with economy than politics."
"At first we thought Telegram might be filtered in Iran for censorship reasons, but it seems it is not the case," he told me.
"The reason to limit Telegram's traffic have more to do with economy than politics."
According to Telegram's data and sources, Durov added, internet traffic in the country is so expensive that Iranian providers have to pay around $100 per Mbit to buy Telegram's traffic, "and they don't necessarily always have the resources to do that." (Due to a variety of factors including a severe lack of competition in the local market, internet bandwidth in Iran particularly expensive, according to a report by Small Media.)
Durov added that Telegram is still investigating and that "the situation is not 100% clear," although experts told Motherboard that Telegram's restrictions seem to be the latest case of Iranian censorship, not a product of economics.
Meanwhile, Iran's government denied on Tuesday that it's trying to block the app. The country's Minister of Communications and Information Technology Mahmoud Vaezi said that "these are just rumors and are not true at all."
"My colleagues and I at the ministry of telecommunications have no plan to restrict social networks."
"My colleagues and I at the ministry of telecommunications have no plan to restrict social networks and are aware of the application of such networks in today's life," Vaezi wrote on his account on Cloob, a Persian language social network. (His remarks were picked up by news reports in both Farsi and English.)
Yet, Vaezi himself reportedly criticized social networks, without naming any specifically, on June 14, saying that the use of some stickers could be offensive and illegal, and that it might prompt restrictions. This criticism came after some Iranians created and share nude stickers on Telegram, according to Nariman Gharib, an Iranian Internet researcher based in London.
For the past few weeks, users in Iran have been flocking to Telegram after another popular messaging app, Viber, suffered a series of disruptions and threats of getting blocked, according to Iranian internet freedom researchers and local reports.
There are no official numbers, but data from Google Trends seems to confirm Iranian's rising interest in Telegram. (The red line in the graphic below represents Viber, and the blue line represents Telegram.)
"They started to degrade Viber and everyone moved from Viber to Telegram overnight," Collin Anderson, a security researcher who's studied Iran's censorship techniques for years, told Motherboard.
The way they "degraded" Viber was to slow down connection and drop packets, according to both Anderson and Gharib, who made a video showing how dropping packets affect Viber calls.
Gharib and Anderson also said that Durov's explanation that Telegram is getting blocked for economic reasons doesn't add up.
"He really thinks Iran is Venezuela or somewhere like that?" Gharib told Motherboard. "If he thinks it's for economic reasons, he can say that telephone companies are losing customers or something like that—but it's not for bandwidth costs."
"This economic argument is nonsense."
"This economic argument is nonsense," Anderson told Motherboard. "Telegram cannot produce nearly as much traffic as applications such as Instagram, which are not restricted."
Durov, however, said that Telegram has been the "most downloaded app in Iran for some time," and that it might be "bigger than an other service" in terms of traffic.
Also last week, several users in Iran reported receiving a strange message on Telegram, asking them to use a password to login onto Telegram's website.
This incident was caused by "someone" trying to use Telegram's delete account feature for some random Iranian phone numbers, Durov said, "probably to check whether these Iranian numbers were registered for Telegram."
He also added that they noticed this suspicious activity and made it "impossible" to abuse further.
In any case, it's clear that someone isn't happy that Iranians are using Telegram.
This story has been updated to add Durov's comment on Telegram being the most downloaded app in Iran.