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Iran declares data handover deadline for foreign messaging apps

Iran is marching ahead with its digital clampdown as it looks to place tighter controls on foreign social media and messaging apps operating in the country.

Acting on orders from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace has issued strict new rules instructing foreign messaging companies to transfer all data linked to Iranian citizens into the country, which would involve establishing data servers within Iran.

Seeing as the popular Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp, and its Asian rival Line, are both blocked in the country, it is thought that the new policy specifically targets encrypted chat app Telegram, reports Reuters.

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The new guidelines dictate that messaging services have a year to move their data servers within Iran or risk facing censorship, according to the state news agency IRNA.

In the absence of the aforementioned more famous platforms, Telegram has managed to successfully accumulate 20 million users in Iran, which has a total population of about 80 million. This follows similar trends in other countries that have placed temporary bans on WhatsApp, including Brazil.

Telegram CEO Pavel Durov made reference to the growing pressure on his company to hand over data to the Iranian government in a tweet posted on October 20, 2015. “Iranian officials want to use @telegram to spy on their citizens. We can not and will not help them with that,” said Durov.

Iran is currently in the midst of a broader digital crackdown that recently saw it target female users of Instagram. Several arrests were made earlier this month in what Tehran’s Cybercrime Court described as a sting operation on obscene content. The alleged perpetrators were all either models or fashion industry patrons, leading some to believe that the investigation was a witch hunt against a particular, liberal section of society.

Even in the face of tough web censorship, Iranians are still using the Internet in droves. A government report last year showed that 67.4 per cent of the country’s youth are online, with 19.1 percent claiming that they use messaging apps, and 15.3 per cent on social media. It is also widely believed that Iran’s tech-savvy citizens are utilizing VPNs to access sites blocked by the government.

Iranian officials, on the other hand, freely use banned social networks. Both President Hassan Rouhani, and foreign minister Javad Zarif have active Twitter accounts with large followings.