Iran moved to shut down the messaging app Telegram on Monday, highlighting the regime’s concern over the popular platform’s role in organizing widespread unrest that has rippled through the country in recent months.
Using the app was prohibited as of Monday under a ruling by a Tehran-based court, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
The order said Telegram gave Islamic State “safe ground” in an attack in Tehran last year and also blamed its role in protests in December and January, the biggest in Iran in almost a decade. It ordered telecommunications providers to block the service.
The app, however, was still working Monday after the order, without the need for digital tools to circumvent a ban. And if Telegram takes technical measures to avoid being blocked, like it did when it was shut down this year in Russia, Iranians may be able to continue using it.
That left many Iranians uncertain about the judicial order’s impact.
“This time we should wait a few days to see” whether the ban has an effect, said Reza Shalbaf Zadeh, a software developer in Tehran.
Blocking Telegram would sharply curtail Iranians’ ability to communicate. Some 40 million Iranians use it, or half of the country’s population and about one-fifth of Telegram’s global user base.
The app has gained in popularity in large part because it is widely perceived to be immune from government snooping.
Iranian officials had signaled in recent weeks that a block was on the way. In early April, a security official said the government would soon launch an alternative to Telegram called Soroush. In mid-April, the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah
who has final say in state matters, announced the shutdown of his official Telegram channel. Government employees were also ordered to stop using it.
Telegram executives couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. But the company, led by a Russian chief executive,
has had a fraught relationship with Iranian authorities, resisting demands to move servers to Iran and shut down channels deemed to conflict with Iranian laws.
Those tensions came to a head in January, when Iranian authorities ordered telecommunications providers to block the app for several days amid a rash of street protests that included unusually sharp rebukes of the ruling system. Many Iranians responded by installing virtual private networks and other software that allowed them to continue using the app.
Telegram suspended a channel that called on protesters to attack security forces with Molotov cocktails and firearms, citing a ban on calls for violence, but it refused to shut down another channel where activists were organizing.
“We consider freedom of speech an undeniable human right, and would rather get blocked in a country by its authorities than limit peaceful expression of alternative opinions,” Mr. Durov said in a New Year’s message.
Thousands of small businesses in Iran use the app to sell their services and interact with customers.
Write to Asa Fitch at firstname.lastname@example.org