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Telegram is a mobile phone app that allows users to exchange private messages, and also create and join public channels where messages may be disseminated more widely.  Any Telegram user can create and advertise a public channel, and share links, images, and messages with channel members, in a manner similar to a public Twitter account.  The public channel feature seems to be popular in Bahrain among independent media, political opposition, and protest groups.  Telegram also provides a version of their software, Telegram Desktop, for PC and Mac users.

 

Bahrain Watch recently received reports that some users in Bahrain were having trouble accessing the Telegram app.  We also noted at least 20 public English language tweets from June 2016 indicating issues accessing Telegram in Bahrain.1  Many of the tweets tagged the official @telegram or @telegram_arabic accounts, but none has apparently received any response from Telegram.  The reports of disrupted Telegram service in Bahrain left open the question of who was responsible: Bahraini ISPs, Telegram itself, or another ISP on the path between Bahrain and Telegram?

 

We performed testing on five Bahraini ISPs, and confirmed that three ISPs, Batelco, Viva, and Zain, are blocking Telegram inside their networks.  We did not observe any Telegram blocking on two other ISPs we tested: Menatelecom and 2Connect.  Since Batelco, Viva, and Zain are the only providers of mobile phone services in Bahrain, and the blocking does not appear to be in their financial interest, we suspect that the government may have requested the blocking.

 

Telegram Public Channels in Bahrain

 

We examined a Twitter search for “telegram.me bahrain” to get an idea of which groups in Bahrain were advertising public Telegram channels to their Twitter followers.2  We found that many prominent independent media and opposition groups have Telegram channels, including Al-Wasat newspaper,3 Bahrain Mirror,4 February 14 Youth Coalition,5 LuaLua TV,6 the suspended Al-Wefaq party,7 the Progressive Democratic Tribune party,8 the Wa’ad party,9 and the dissolved10 Islamic Olamaa council.11  Several village protest groups also have Telegram channels, including groups in the villages of Shahrakan,12 Sanabis,13 Muharraq,14 Bani Jamra,15 A’ali,16 Ma’ameer,17 Saar,18 Sitra,19 and Abu Saiba.20

 

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Figure 1: A screenshot of the @bahrainmirror public Telegram channel showing news about Nabeel Rajab.  The channel had 2771 members when we checked.

 

We were unable to identify significant usage of Telegram’s public channels by other constituencies, such as pro-government groups, or Sunni groups.  We did note a small number of miscellaneous Telegram channels that appear to originate in Bahrain, such the Sunni Waqf’s channel,21 and a channel to talk about amateur radio in Bahrain.22

 

Testing Telegram Blocking

 

The Telegram app sends and receives messages through one of the Telegram data centers.  If the Telegram app cannot connect to a Telegram data center, it cannot function.  We obtained a list of IP addresses for Telegram data centers from the Telegram API.23

 

149.154.175.50
149.154.175.51
149.154.175.100
149.154.167.91
91.108.56.165

 

Measuring Telegram Connectivity

 

There appear to be 23 different Autonomous Systems in Bahrain, which provide connectivity to the Internet.24  We tested reachability of Telegram IPs from the following five ASNs: AS5416 (Batelco), AS51375 (Viva), AS31452 (Zain), AS35313 (2Connect), and AS39015 (Menatelecom).  We tested fixed-line connections for Batelco, Menatelecom, and 2Connect, and cellular connections for Viva and Zain.  We performed an ICMP traceroute from our experiment laptop to each Telegram data center IP from each connection.  To test cellular connections, we set up a hotspot on the phone to share the cellular connection through Wi-Fi, and connected the laptop to the phone’s hotspot.  Our results are in the table below.

 

 

149.154.175.50

149.154.167.51

149.154.175.100

149.154.167.91

91.108.56.165

Batelco

Dropped

Dropped

Dropped

Dropped

Dropped

Viva

Dropped

Dropped

Dropped

Dropped

Dropped

Zain

Dropped

Dropped

Dropped

Dropped

Dropped

Menatelecom

Reachable

Reachable

Reachable

Reachable

Reachable

2Connect

Reachable

Reachable

Reachable

Reachable

Reachable

 

The results show that IP packets destined for Telegram servers are dropped on Batelco, Viva, and Zain, and are not dropped on Menatelecom and 2Connect.  The traceroute results show that dropping is happening inside the ISP networks.  On Viva and Zain, we received no responses from any hop beyond TTL=1 (our phone hotspot) when we sent a traceroute to the Telegram data center IPs.  We successfully completed traceroutes to other (non-Telegram) IPs, showing that Viva and Zain are not interfering with traceroutes in general.  On Batelco, we found that blocking was happening between TTL=3 and TTL=4.  We summarize our Batelco results in Figure 2 below.

 

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Figure 2: The first few hops of the path between a Batelco customer and Telegram data centers.  Telegram IP packets are dropped on the link between TTL=3 and TTL=4 inside AS5461 (Batelco).

 

When conducting traceroutes to non-Telegram IPs from Batelco, we observed that the IP addresses TTL=3 and TTL=4 varied together.  They were either 88.201.64.58 and 88.201.64.57, or 88.201.64.242 and 88.201.64.241.  When conducting traceroutes to Telegram IPs, we received no response from TTL=4, and the TTL=3 IP address varied between 88.201.64.58 and 88.201.64.242.  We could not identify the IP address of the first hop beyond our experiment router (TTL=2).

 

Conclusion

 

At least three Bahraini ISPs, including the only providers of mobile phone services in Bahrain, are blocking Telegram traffic inside their networks.  Given that several ISPs are simultaneously blocking Telegram, and this action does not seem to be in the financial interest of the ISPs, we suspect that the blocking may be at the request of the government.

 

Telegram’s public channel feature appears to be primarily used by dissidents, and this may be the reason for the blocking.  We note that there have been no reported disruptions to other mobile messaging apps popular in Bahrain, such as WhatsApp.  WhatsApp, however, does not offer an analog to Telegram’s public channel feature, and WhatsApp may be used by a broader cross-section of Bahraini society than Telegram.

 

Other GCC countries including the UAE25 and Saudi Arabia26 block voice calling features of some mobile messaging apps, such as WhatsApp and Snapchat, ostensibly to protect telecom companies’ revenue streams from traditional voice calls.  However, Telegram has no voice calling feature, and we can find no evidence of any other mobile messaging apps that have been blocked by Bahraini ISPs.  Thus, the justification of protecting revenue would not seem to be applicable to Bahraini ISPs’ blocking of Telegram.

 

When an app or website is popular among both dissidents and others (e.g., Twitter), a government may anger non-dissidents by blocking the app or website outright.  This anger could result in political costs for the government.  Perhaps, in this case, the government believes that Telegram is not sufficiently popular among non-dissidents to result in significant political costs.

 

For encrypted messaging, Bahrain Watch recommends WhatsApp or Signal instead of Telegram.  Those who wish to enjoy Telegram’s public channels may use a VPN to circumvent the Telegram blocking.

 

In closing, we note that it is possible that Telegram is only blocked in the geographic areas of Bahrain that we tested from.  The need for further testing is indicated.  Anyone that is able to successfully use Telegram on a mobile data connection should contact bill@bahrainwatch.org with details.

 

Footnotes

  1. https://twitter.com/search?q=telegram%20bahrain%20blocked%20OR%20working%20since%3A2016-06-01%20until%3A2016-06-30
  2. https://twitter.com/search?f=tweets&q=telegram.me%20bahrain
  3. https://telegram.me/alwasatnewsbh
  4. https://telegram.me/bahrainmirror
  5. https://telegram.me/coalition14
  6. https://telegram.me/lualuanews
  7. https://telegram.me/alwefaq
  8. https://telegram.me/altaqadomi
  9. https://telegram.me/waad_bh
  10. http://www.bahrainrights.org/en/node/6753
  11. https://telegram.me/OlamaaBahrain
  12. https://telegram.me/shababshahrakan
  13. https://telegram.me/sanabismedia
  14. https://telegram.me/Muharraq_news
  15. https://telegram.me/bj_prisoners
  16. https://telegram.me/pottery_eyes
  17. https://telegram.me/wahat_almaameer
  18. https://telegram.me/ahrar_sar
  19. https://telegram.me/Bahrrain
  20. https://telegram.me/abusaibamedia
  21. https://telegram.me/sunniwaqf
  22. https://telegram.me/a92aa
  23. Accessed through telegram-js.
  24. http://ipinfo.io/countries/bh
  25. http://gulfbusiness.com/snapchat-voice-and-video-calling-blocked-in-uae/
  26. http://www.arabnews.com/news/messenger-call-outage-leaves-users-baffled

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