Telegram is still widely available in Russia as the country’s communications regulator struggles to enforce a nationwide block
regulator struggles to enforce a nationwide block
On Sunday, April 22, paper planes started gliding through the sky from tower blocks in Moscow. The planes used in the small-scale protest mimicked the logo of encrypted messaging service Telegram.
The messaging service has been banned by Russia’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor (Роскомнадзор, in Russian) since mid-April and the ban follows Telegram losing a court case in the country. State officials working for security agency FSB had demanded company founder Pavel Durov hand over decryption keys so officials could read messages being sent using the app.
After Durov’s firm denied to hand over the decryption keys – a move praised by former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden – the Russian regulator started blocking Internet Protocol (IP) addresses associated with Telegram. These IP addresses, which Telegram shifted its services to in order to avoid the ban, are largely owned by the hosting arms of Google and Amazon.
In a futile game of whack-a-mole, Roskomnadzor has now included Google IP addresses on its block list because they’re related to Telegram. In a social media post the Russian agency said Google’s action was “in violation of the court’s verdict”.
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“This is the first time when Roskomnadzor failed to block a specific service,” says Gregory Asmolov, a researcher at King’s College London’s Russia Institute. “This is also about power relations between the government and internet services and providers.”
Asmolov has previously researched public opinion in Russia to internet censorship. He says three years ago around 49 per cent of people in the country believed the internet should be censored. “The government was very successful in portraying the internet as a threat and using traditional media in order to frame the internet as something that has to be regulated,” he explains.
Durov’s paper plane protest may show there is a shift in public opinions. Telegram provides a different problem to other online internet regulation in Russia. Asmolov says blocking Telegram poses larger problems for the political establishment in the country as it “touches everyone”.
“Russian political elites are quite confused because Telegram channels are very popular in the Kremlin among very high-rank politicians,” Asmolov says. Some politicians using the encrypted messenger have tens of thousands of peoplefollowing their channels.
“It’s very different from any other situation. When Russia blocked LinkedIn, for instance, it didn’t’ really touch any political or economic interests. It was bad for people who were looking for a job or Russian students but it’s not like high-rank officials or politicians in the Kremlin really cared.”
It’s unlikely there’s an easy resolution to Russia’s Telegram blocks. Civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union have said tech companies including Google and Amazon shouldn’t bend to Roskomnadzor’s demands to stop hosting parts of Telegram. And despite the attempted block, the service is still widely available in Russia.
“I’m thrilled we were able to survive under the most aggressive attempt of internet censorship in Russian history,” Durov wroteon his personal Telegram channel.
“Keep up your great work setting up socks5-proxies and VPNs and spreading them among your Russian friends and relatives,” he wrote. “They will be needed as the country descends into an era of full-scale internet censorship.”
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