The instant messaging service Telegram has become the latest victim of Russia’s war against The Internet. On April 13, a Moscow court ruled to block Telegram after the company refused to give up its encryption key to the FSB, which would have allowed them access to its users’ encrypted data.
The ban has raised concerns over the Kremlin’s increasing control over the internet. Russian investigative reporter and co-author of the book “The Red Web” Andrei Soldatov believes that Russia's state communications regulator Roskomnadzor is trying to “change the political climate” with this crackdown on Telegram.
“If say, the IT business would accept this new reality, it would make other things much easier for Roskomnadzor to do. For instance, to introduce some new form of censorship and filtering, or to attack some other platforms,” Soldatov adds.
However, Telegram is fighting back. In the two weeks since the block on Telegram was announced, Russia has not been able to fully implement the ban. In an attempt to circumvent the restrictions, Telegram involved other major platforms by moving their IP addresses to Google and Amazon servers. As a result, other unrelated apps and services have been affected in Russia, such as Google Maps.
Hromadske spoke to Russian investigative reporter and security services expert Andrei Soldatov via Skype to find out why Telegram was targeted and what this means for internet freedom in Russia.
What is Telegram?
Telegram is a cloud-based instant messaging service, founded in 2013 by tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov. Often referred to as Russia’s answer to Mark Zuckerberg, Durov gained initial success after creating VKontakte (VK) –Russia’s most popular social networking site – together with his brother Nikolai.
Photo credit: EPA.com
Under its tagline “a new era of messaging,” Telegram distinguishes itself from its competitors with features such as channels, which allow its users to broadcast public messages to an unlimited number of people. Users also have access to a “secret chat” function, which uses end-to-end encryption, making this information undecipherable to everyone but the sender and recipient, even for Telegram.
However, Telegram only enjoys limited outreach compared to its counterparts, even in Russia. Telegram’s main competitor Whatsapp still ranks much higher in both Apple App Store and Google Play charts.
Why was Telegram targeted?
Soldatov attributes some of Telegram’s unique features to the ban. Telegram users use the app’s channel feature to share world news, gossip, and other information the Kremlin may not want its citizens exposed to.
“In a country where you have restricted freedom of the media, and you cannot talk openly about sensitive things because you might get prosecuted and sacked by the authorities, channels on Telegram give you this opportunity,” Soldatov comments.
Photo credit: EPA-EFE/ANATOLY MALTSEV
That’s not all. Soldatov also says “it’s personal.” The app’s founder is no stranger when it comes to run-ins with the Russian security services. His failure to comply with FSB demands to release information from VK on Euromaidan protesters, as well as Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, during Ukraine’s 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity resulted in his dismissal as CEO of VK, which had previously been bought up by Russian internet company Mail.ru.
Nonetheless, Durov persists in his battle for internet freedom in Russia. On April 29, Durov published a post on VK, calling his Moscow followers to protest the Kremlin’s actions against Telegram.
“Some will say that a protest will not change anything. That’s not the case. Russia is at a crossroads – full-scale censorship has not been introduced yet. Without action, Russia will lose Telegram and other popular services. Your active participation could change the course of history,” Durov’s post reads.
Photo credit: TechCrunch Disrupt Europe: Berlin 2013
But Durov may not be the freedom fighter he claims to be, according to Soldatov, who says that the entrepreneur may be using the situation to get ahead of the competition and, moreover, using Kremlin-esque rhetoric to do so.
“Just a week ago, he published a post that the Russian authorities are very stupid because they attack a service which is neutral to the Russian authorities and forcing his users, Telegram's users, to move to another platform, which is under control of the US government,” Soldatov told Hromadske, adding that, “Of course, this is very Kremlin language.”
Although the Russian authorities have not been able to accomplish a complete shutdown of the app, Telegram has suffered a drop in audience and, according to Soldatov, the app now has a “divided community of users.”
Soldatov says that 76% of Telegram users – in particular, small business owners – in Russia have chosen to abandon the app for other messaging services. He adds that a lack of sophistication and technical knowhow has prompted this, as many Russians are unfamiliar with the VPN and proxy technology used to bypass the restrictions.
Overall, however, Telegram’s defense strategy seems to be proving effective. Telegram remains operational and accessible to the majority of its Russian users. The authorities have started shutting down the Telegram IP addresses that were moved to Amazon and Google servers, but so far have only managed to block 17% (approximately three million) of these IP addresses.
Again, a lack of technological sophistication – this time on the part of the Russian authorities – has helped keep the messenger app afloat amid the aggressive attempts to undermine it.
“They made a lot of mistakes. Just a day ago, they blocked, accidentally, Yandex and VKontakte. And so, they are making a lot of mistakes,” Soldatov explains.
What’s more, loyal Telegram users, mainly those who use it for political reasons, are strongly opposed to the ban. On April 29, in a show of support, people in cities across Russia released paper planes into the air, both as a symbol of internet freedom, and a nod to Telegram’s paper plane logo.
But, the biggest question on everyone’s minds is: who will Roskomnadzor come after next? Soldatov says that the Russian internet censorship agency have been trying to find ways to bring down these big global platforms, such as Google and Facebook, for years. The difference with the Telegram block is that, in this case, Roskomnadzor received political backing, – or, as Soldatov calls it, “a license to attack,” – from the Kremlin.
“Everybody – I mean the community of activists in Moscow – they understand what is at stake. And, what is at stake is access to global platforms, like Google, Twitter, Facebook. It's not only about Telegram.”
/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk
/Text by Sofia Fedeczko