Internet users in the Russian Federation may have noticed something different in the last week or two. Many Internet sites that were available in March are no longer available now, at least not without a VPN in use to set the user’s computer outside the Russian Federation.
Is this government censorship?
Hardly, at least not in the expected sense of sanctioning the West.
It is a very clumsy attempt by the Russian government to restrict access to Telegram. If one wants to call that move censorship it might be legitimate, but it still is not a move that has anything to do with tensions with the West.
In our newspiece dated 14 April, the Russian censorship authority Roskomnadzor (RKN) announced the forthcoming restriction against Telegram, Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov’s latest messaging enterprise. While the date that the ban was to take effect was not released, it apparently has been put in place now.
On 22 April, Pavel Durov had this to say on Twitter:
For 7 days Russia has been trying to ban Telegram on its territory – with no luck so far. We were able to survive under the most aggressive attempt of internet censorship in Russian history with almost 18 million IP addresses blocked. https://t.co/swYBT65PB9
— Pavel Durov (@durov) April 22, 2018
Pavel Durov was a co-founder of vKontakte (VK), a social network very similar to the American Facebook, but targeted at the Russian market.
The Russian government has taken issue with Durov’s Telegram network because its ability to encrypt communication end-to-end is so strong that encryption keys are required to crack it. This has created unwitting cover for ISIS personnel. and the point of view of the Russian Federal Security Bureau (FSB) is that this is a threat to the security of the Russian Federation. When the FSB requested decryption keys for Telegram users in Russia, Pavel Durov refused to grant them.
Unfortunately, the FSB’s move to get Rozkomnadzor to restrict Telegram from being used within Russian territorial bounds was further complicated when the messaging network shifted its service to two giant American web hosts, Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services, while at the same time repeatedly changing its IP address to skip ahead of Roskomnadzor. So RKN was unable to restrict Telegram by just blocking one or a few addresses.
To try to stop Telegram services from being accessible, RKN then blocked a rather wide range of IP addresses that belong to Google. When this happened, other sites that also use IP addresses in this range were cut off.
The collateral damage hit a variety of other sites, like Viber, another messaging app, as well as small businesses including a language school and a courier service, all of which suffered financial losses.
Volvo dealerships could not access their service records, according to press reports, and Kremlin museums had to suspend ticket sales. Roskomnadzor said it unblocked individual sites as soon as the agency became aware of a problem.
The Agora group of human rights lawyers, which represents Telegram in Russian courts, said in a statement that it had received 73 complaints about blocked websites. The organization planned to file a formal complaint with the prosecutor general’s office.
In addition to the virtual warfare, the two sides sparred publicly. Mr. Zharov told the independent Russian news outlet The Bell that his agency had been able to cut off one-third of the traffic to Telegram, while the company said the figure was 5 percent. The Bell suggested that traffic even rose on the day the initial blocks had been imposed.
Telegram has been sending messages to users encouraging them to use alternative means, including Virtual Private Networks, which effectively connect to the internet outside Russia, to evade the ban.
Mr. Durov is marketing this dispute as “digital resistance”, a move which has gained the support of Edward Snowden, the NSA-turned-political refugee.
I have criticized @telegram's security model in the past, but @Durov's response to the Russian government's totalitarian demand for backdoor access to private communications—refusal and resistance—is the only moral response, and shows real leadership. https://t.co/KtZDpu33wh
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) April 17, 2018
However, while the feud between Pavel Durov and the FSB and RKN are making some news stories in the West, the Russian viewpoint is a little less sensational. As assessment by an expert in Internet and IT security in Russia shared this opinion with me:
The situation looks ugly for Russian IT, not because of the blockings themselves, but because the whole picture looks stupid when viewed from outside:
- Durov fulfills the requirements of other governments but not the requirements of Russian government – for example blocking Telegram channels in Iran in December 2017.
- There are problems with other IT services due to the mass IP bans set in place
- Users of Telegram are told in glowing terms about the privacy that they are able to have, but usually do not use, such as the “secret chats” feature, which provides end-to-end encryption.
However, there is some logic here.
For many foreign IT companies, the Russian market is not a primary market; it is small. So, when they decide to adapt their services and products to the local laws and markets, they first try to understand how much this will cost. and then from this, they determine whether or not the market is really that important for them.
Russia in not at the top of the ratings for IT spending.
So, sometimes it is simply not profitable to adapt.
To that end, Durov is acting like an astute businessman. He is not interested in the Russian market (he said this in Twitter recently), the Russian segment of Telegram is just 6~7% of all the Telegram user base. Also, it is risky to be a Russian now while building an international IT company, as we see in similar situations, such as that with Kaspersky Lab.
Durov made a small PR appearance, showing that his office in Dubai.
He is not really aimed at the Russian market. But the hype gave him an international advertising campaign for free – he is talented entrepreneur. Go to Pavel Durov’s Twitter feed and you can see this campaign in full swing presently.
To offer further perspective, you can find information about banning Telegram channels in Iran. The minister of communication of Iran asked Durov to block the channel in his Twitter and Durov did this. Iranian users number about 50-60% of the whole user base of Telegram, not 6-7% as in Russia.
Even though the unique value proposition of Telegram was the statement that “it is the most secure…”, there are already many popular messengers apps, such as WhatsApp, Viber, and Skype. So, it is impossible for Durov now to give up here – security is the main differentiator of his product. He may use this situation again to try and highlight that “Telegram is secured”, but in reality he is likely to cooperate with other governments.”
In a relevant development, Iranian officials said that their government officials are no longer allowed to use Telegram, They also said if Durov’s messenger app refuses to localize Iranian user data in Iran’s territory and if Telegram does not create a local office in the country, then Telegram will be banned in Iran.
Given that Iranian users form a huge part of the Telegram user base, it will be interesting to see what happens next.