The upside and downside of Iran's newest mobile demand

Latest Iranian online demand has digital publishers unsure

The upside and downside of Iran's newest mobile demand
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Iran wants messaging apps to give up Iranian users' information to the country, but is this beneficial?

It is always China and North Korea that come to mind when the issue of internet censorship surfaces. The general public typically knows little about other countries outside these two when it comes to strict online publishing laws, among which is Iran.

Iran has made headlines over the past weeks after announcing a new demand that baffled many online publishers in the West. With this, all foreign messaging apps must now store all their Iranian users’ information into the country. This means that the likes of Line, Facebook, and Whatsapp must build data servers in Iran and they have one year to comply.

Of course, it will benefit the local app market. There’s no giant Iranian company for such, but surely local tech entrepreneurs will see this as an opportunity to create their own version of Viber and Skype. Yet, this will only happen if such a demand appeared to be insurmountable for messaging app providers.

In other words, these foreigners must feel that Iran is no longer a lucrative market for their business. Otherwise, it would be hard for the would-be, next-generation, local messaging apps to compete.

That is unless you’re Telegram, a Russia-based, privacy-focused messaging apps that made international headlines after blocking all Islamic State users in 2015. Now, over 20 million of Iran’s 80 million population use Telegram, and it will surely grow in the months to come despite the new demand from the government. Pavel Durov, its CEO, has no plans of succumbing to it, saying that it is just a blatant way to spy on its citizen. "We cannot and will not help them with that,” he told the press.

This daring statement, certainly, could also start a collective stance among app developers, both foreign and local, in the country. Telegram, after all, is not just some puny tech brand. It has a following, a large one, and its millions of consumers can start a campaign against the Iranian government. 

However, the quandary will not only affect messaging apps. It will also shake social media sites more, as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can only be accessed in the country through special software available on the black market. These giant sites, like in China, are banned in Iran.

Dom Einhorn, CEO of emerging global news curation app born2invest, admits that it could affect not only messaging apps but also virtually anyone who capitalizes on content. “Iran has a big tech-savvy population, and among the biggest in the entire Middle East. It will be a challenge for online publishers who want to expand to Iran, but surely we will think of ways to overcome it.” Born2Invest has managed to become one of the most-used business and finance apps both on Google Play and iOS store despite being live only for ten months.

The newest online demand from Iran can be a global fix, especially for those who want to have a fully globalized market. In a study conducted by two anonymous Iranian and University of Michigan computer science professor Alex Halderman, it is revealed that over 200 of all popular 500 websites on the whole internet are either banned or censored in Iran. Also, a large fraction of traffic being done in the country passes through a centralized facility that makes it hard for Iranians to publish anti-government content and sentiment, although there have been groups that bravely criticized the government in the past in the hope of seeing the strict law being abolished.

This only means foreign brands have no choice but to accede, similar to China and North Korea. Hence, for now, everyone must wait for a year to pass to see if Iran’s really serious about the ultimatum.

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