Outside of the autonomous Kurdistan region, Telegram was suspended in Iraq at the ISP level for about a week by order of the Ministry of Communications. The cited reason was “national security concerns” and the leaking of private personal data of citizens, but the ban has been lifted as of August 14 (about a week after blocks began happening).
Iraq’s national security ban of Telegram came after reports of doxxing of citizens
ISP blocks on Telegram began on August 6 in Iraq, roughly concurrent with a Facebook post from the Ministry of Communications citing national security and personal data leakage as reasons for a shutdown order. Zain and Earthlink, the country’s two biggest internet providers, blocked both the backend and frontend of the service. However, the major ISPs based in Kurdistan (such as Korak Telecom and Kurdistan Net) did not restrict access at any point.
These disruptions could have been circumvented by VPN use, though that is something that the Iraq government has declared to be illegal for everyone in the country. The government has a history of shutting down the internet during protests, emergency situations and even during the national exam period (in a bid to curb cheating).
The national security ban of Telegram appeared to be touched off by the discovery of channels that shared the names, addresses and family relationships of residents of Iraq. The Ministry of Communications reportedly asked the messaging app to remove these channels, but received no response.
The ban was in place for a little over a week, lifted on August 14 with a post from the Ministry indicating that Telegram had responded to its requests. A spokesperson from Telegram confirmed that several channels were removed related to Iraq’s request, but that no personal information was shared with the government. Telegram has long had a policy forbidding the sharing of private and protected data without consent.
Privacy apps continue to have a difficult co-existence with governments
Telegram has long promised to limit the data it shares with governments, but it does cooperate with requests in certain cases. It has always promised to release user IP addresses and phone numbers to investigating authorities when presented with a warrant involving terrorism charges. The site’s terms of service also make clear that sticker sets, channels and bots that are publicly available are subject to service rules about illegal content, and anyone can make a request to have these taken down.
Telegram has long maintained that it does not respond to any other requests involving private chats, which are held to be solely the responsibility of the parties involved in them, national security reasons or otherwise. Some controversy was raised in June 2022, when a report from German paper Der Spiegel claimed that Telegram was going beyond its stated policies and providing unencrypted user data to Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office in relation to assorted terrorism and child abuse investigations. Telegram has confounded the issue by claiming that it will release a transparency report documenting the situation if it ever responds to such a request, but that since it has never responded to one, it has not yet issued any such reports.
Though some questions have been raised about surreptitious cooperation with certain governments on national security and other issues, Telegram’s otherwise staunch stance on privacy has prompted bans in numerous countries, many of them under authoritarian rule. The service has been banned in China since 2015, due to use by human rights lawyers to criticize the government. It remains available in Hong Kong, though there has been talk since mid-2022 about banning it due to doxxing. It has also seen temporary bans in a number of countries during periods of unrest such as Russia, Thailand and Belarus.
Telegram was also suspended in Brazil in late April of this year, after failure to cooperate with a government investigation into alleged neo-Nazi channels on the service. The ban was reversed three days later, but the company was forced to pay a fine of about $186,000 per day that accrued during the suspension.
Encrypted messaging in general is not sitting well with governments around the world, which continue to make sporadic passes at putting an end to it or demanding the sort of privileged access that would render it effectively useless. Perhaps the most egregious attack on it in the Western world is the United Kingdom’s Online Safety Bill, which is broadly expected to pass sometime this year and will include a requirement that all messaging services turn over the content of encrypted messages when requested during certain types of investigations involving national security or child protection. This would necessitate the creation of an internal backdoor into the encryption process, which would necessarily tank user interest in the app and create a serious security issue (as hackers would no doubt immediately begin probing for access). Telegram’s primary secure messaging app competitors, WhatsApp and Signal, have already threatened to pull out of the country if the Online Safety Bill is passed in its current form.