Blocking Apple and Apps in Iran: the international digital filter

Iran's relationship with Apple, the iPhone, and App Store has had many ups and downs. Many Iranians are enthusiastic Apple consumers; although Apple has no formal operations in the country due to US sanctions. This unofficial economy is pretty robust, with iPhones enjoying an 11-percent market share thanks to non-licensed stores or online retailers selling iOS products. While new devices are several times more expensive than retail value, iPhone models are often available a day after the US official release.

Despite supposed international legal limitations, Iranians have downloaded foreign apps within the country, and Iranian apps are developed and used locally. While some of these users have to use IP-routing tech to be functional within the country, there seems to be some amount of looking the other way when it comes to an Apple economy in Iran, except when one side or the other decides to upset the system.

Iranian developers saw their apps removed from Apple’s App Store in early 2017, with the tech corporation initializing the practice due to legality issues with the Middle Eastern country. A Change.org petition quotes Apple’s reasons for breaking ties with Iranian iOS content owners: “we are unable to include your app, [App’s name] on the App Store. Under the U.S. sanctions regulations, the App Store cannot host, distribute, or do business with apps or developers connected to certain U.S. embargoed countries… This area of law is complex and constantly changing. If the existing restrictions shift, we encourage you to resubmit your app for inclusion on the App Store.”

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Since no official statement was issued by Apple regarding the change in support, there was some conjecture that Apple may have been responding to new US sanctions being imposed against Iran. Though it is possible that the company was reacting to pressure from the Trump administration, it is also possible that there are other factors at play, as evidenced by Google’s mobile app practices in Iran. Android phones are popular in Iran, and free Play Store apps during this time period were available - though not the paid ones.

In March 2018, Apple withdrew user access on the App Store completely only for about a day. Reporting sites on the matter could not confirm whether this was a mistake, but considering all the countries in the world that could have been blocked, it is unlikely that coincidence completely is to blame. The reason for this outage has still not yet been clarified, but in April a new development occurred from the opposite side.

The government of Iran may be preparing to ban encrypted messaging app Telegram as it did earlier this year along with Instagram - and as Russia did less than a week previous. The ban coincided with the protest movement in January, lasted 2 weeks, and was followed by governmental slowing of connection speeds after they lifted the Telegram block. According to The Verge, Telegram is widely used in Iran - the app has 40 million users in a country where 50 million have Internet access, a startlingly high penetration rate.

Users span from individuals to news organizations and government representatives. The plan to ban Telegram was posted on the app itself, and will be followed up by promoting local platforms such as “iGap, Soroush and Gap,” which one news site actually referred to as “halal” versions of the messaging app. Sources are conflicting about whether the Iranian government will institute a full ban and may instead focus on encouraging use of local apps. One of these - the self-described “most popular Iranian messenger” Soroush, has been reported by the BBC to have a series of emojis that depict a chador-wearing woman with various signs; one that reads “Death to America,” and others referring to Freemasons and Israel.

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Photo via BBC

Iran is not the only country with a long-running dysfunctional relationship with Apple. China has famously built what the international community refer to as the Great Firewall, an extension of the government efforts to control information by limiting the Internet presence and influence within the country. Besides blocking Google, Facebook, YouTube and the New York Times, many search terms and subjects are censored from Chinese devices browsers.

Digital control extends far wider than access to mobile apps, and this should not be downplayed as a frivolous limitation. Other countries whose citizens are subjected to high Internet filtering are Cuba, Myanmar (Burma), Oman, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan, the UAE, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Yemen according to a report from UNESCO. The filtering targets different content depending on the country, for example Vietnam follows many practices that China applies, and South Korean Internet content access is generally quite unencumbered except for tightly controlled content related to national security. From a progressive perspective, these laws are draconian across the board; governmental interferences in internet access manifest in startlingly unhealthy ways without regards to the impact on the population.