Iran Deems Signal 'Criminal Content,' Removes From Local App Stores

By Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran has ordered the removal of the private encrypted messengering application Signal from local application stores after it reportedly was deemed "criminal content" by the Islamic republic’s filtering committee.

Iranian media reported on January 14 that local app stores Cafebazaar and Myketappstore confirmed the removal of the Signal app.

Users have reported that when trying to install Signal, they have received a message that said the application has been “removed by the order of the Criminal Content Designation Taskforce,” which is in charge of Internet censorship.

The committee has not publicly commented on the decision, which comes amid the reported migration of many users worldwide to Signal and Telegram following an update by WhatsApp of its privacy policy reserving the right to share user data with its parent company Facebook Inc.

WhatsApp has said its update “does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way," adding that the policy changes were necessary to allow users to message businesses on WhatsApp.

Many Iranians have said in recent days that they had migrated to Signal because of the change.

U.S.-based digital security expert and entrepreneur Nima Fatemi suggested on Twitter that Signal's removal from local app stores was an attempt by authorities “to slow down the migration,” while some users said that authorities were worried that Signal would become as popular locally as the messaging app Telegram.

Amir Rashid, the New-York-based director of Internet security and digital rights at Miaan Group, which focuses on digital security in the Middle East, told RFE/RL that the authorities could move to block Signal.

"Usually, [authorities] first issue the order to remove [a tool] and then they block it," Rashidi said.

"For now Signal remains unblocked. In the early years of the administration of [President Hassan] Rohani it was filtered. But the filtering was removed without any explanation," he said.

In 2019, Iran blocked Telegram, used by half of the country’s 81 million people, claiming it endangered national security. Many Iranians still use it despite the state-imposed filtering.

In December 2020, Iran executed Ruhollah Zam, the manager of the popular Telegram channel Amadnews, which had been accused of inciting violence during the country’s antiestablishment protests in late 2017 and early 2018.

Iran routinely filters tens of thousands of websites, including news sites and social-media networks, but Iranians frequently access banned sites through anti-filtering tools.

Senior state officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, frequently use Twitter even though it is banned in Iran.