On April 16, the Russian telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor began blocking Telegram, an encrypted messaging app created by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov that has more than 200 million users worldwide. The app’s developers had previously refused to provide the country’s Federal Security Service with encryption keys that would give the government access to users’ communications, and a Russian court ultimately handed down a decision to ban Telegram. Roskomnadzor has cast a very wide net in its suppression, going so far as to block IP addresses owned by Google and Amazon that are associated with Telegram services. Millions of other IP addresses for local companies and individuals that reportedly have no relation to Telegram have also been blocked.
In order to better understand the Telegram ban against the wider backdrop of internet freedom in Russia, I spoke Tuesday with Tanya Lokot, an assistant professor at Dublin City University who studies digital media and internet freedom in Russia.
Below is a transcript of the interview, which has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Aaron Mak: What role did Telegram play in Russia prior to the ban?
Tanya Lokot: It’s not the most popular social media platform—it doesn’t have nearly as many users as Facebook or WhatsApp. But it was a messenger developed by a team and founder that had a history with Russia, and in building the app, they made the point that this was something made for Russia with the situation in the country in mind. Many people saw it truly as an alternative space for debate and discourse. It’s not just individual users talking to each other anymore. By adding the channel functionality and chats, they really created this space where there are a lot of political debates happening. There is a lot of news-related content that is being shared and discussed. And so I do think it had this role as an elite and political space, which many people also saw as a protected space because Telegram insists on the fact that all the communications are end-to-end encrypted. People saw this as a safe space to express themselves and debate political and social issues.
What kind of activity would the Russian government want to monitor or stymie on Telegram?
There are several fairly popular accounts that share political news and commentary. Some of these accounts actually claim to be insiders within the Kremlin. They leak behind-the-scenes stuff or provide commentary on things that happen within the government.
There are also a lot of different channels and chats that focus specifically on very narrow issues. I, by virtue of doing the work that I do, follow a few channels that focus on information security. They share recommendations and discuss cases, like when somebody gets arrested and prosecuted for doing something online. They have that space to debate those things as well and offer valuable tips on how to make your internet experience more secure.
These people may or may not be persecuted on the wider Russian internet, but they found that Telegram for them is a more focused way to get to their target audience. Some of the major independent Russian media outlets have their own Telegram channels, which they use to share and push out news they create. It’s a diverse space and there’s room for different kind of debates. It is more politicized than (Russian social media network) Vkontakte or Facebook, perhaps because people feel more secure on it.
What influence does the regulator Roskomnadzor have over on the internet in Russia?
They’re a weird body. They are part of the state apparatus, and they’re usually referred to as the Russian state’s media censor or media watchdog, because they don’t just watch over the internet but also telecommunications and mass media. But they’re more famous for trying to regulate the internet. It’s really interesting because they don’t actually have that much power to block things themselves; they don’t actually hold the levers of what is and isn’t blocked.
The problem with them is that they do control the blacklist. They decide what goes onto that registry, and that’s how much of the blocking actually happens. They add a web URL or IP address to the registry, and then all of the internet service providers in Russia regularly update their own filters based on what is in that registry.
There have been a lot of complaints against Roskomnadzor because they do a lot of arbitrary blocking. In Russia, I don’t think anybody is terrified of Roskomnadzor in terms of the power it has. People are more terrified of its incompetence. In a case like this, where they just block thousands to millions of websites that have nothing to do with Telegram, it’s more a testament to their incompetence than it is to how easy it is to abuse the power they have. They’re not doing this because they’re competent. They know very well what they’re doing, it’s just that they don’t have a better solution.
Were you at all surprised by the decision to block Telegram?
I wasn’t surprised by the decision to ban Telegram itself because they’ve been gearing up for it for quite a while. It’s not like they haven’t blocked things like this in the past. They blocked LinkedIn for failing to adhere to the data localization law, which demands that companies with Russian users store their data on servers in Russia. LinkedIn refused to do that, so it’s currently blocked in its entirety in Russia.
People weren’t surprised. In fact, they were prepared. I’m not surprised that Telegram was chosen as scapegoat in this case because of the contentious relationship of its founder, Pavel Durov, with the Russian state.
People are worried because it’s not just Telegram that’s been blocked because it refuses to share encryption keys, but that the decision also affects other companies that use encryption—that other companies may have to face a similar fate, companies like Facebook or WhatsApp.
In this case, myself and others are more surprised at the scale of Roskomnadzor’s attempts to block Telegram and how well Telegram has been avoiding attempts to block it. They’re willing to go this far to basically shut down half of the Russian internet and disrupt the work of so many other companies, including Google, Microsoft, Adobe, and a bunch of Russian companies. That surprises me more than anything.
What’s next for the other companies that were unintentionally swept up in the ban?
I think this is a question that the Roskomnadzor is trying to find an answer to right now. It’s funny because, on the one hand, Roskomnadzor has denied that their actions have disrupted any other services. On the other hand, they did also start a hotline for complaints from businesses or individuals who believe their websites or online presences have been disrupted.
I think they’re really trying to crack down on the number of websites they’re adding to the blacklist. Right now, it’s hovering at around 18 million IP addresses. There was one point a few days back when it was over 20 million. Around April 19, Roskomnadzor set up a meeting with some of the big internet service providers in the country to discuss what they were doing. At least from the reports that Russian media have published, they didn’t reach a consensus. They really don’t know how to do it so that they can roll back all the blocking and people can continue working. They’re looking for a more elegant solution that hasn’t presented itself.
The advocacy organizations and lawyers that work on internet and human rights basically plan to appeal to the courts, the interior ministry, and the European Court of Human Rights, accusing Roskomnadzor of committing negligence. Reaction from the state so far has been very mixed, too: The Kremlin spokesman basically said, “We’ll have to wait and see.” Who’s going to compensate these companies for the fact that their websites were blocked and they lost money? Putin also has an adviser who works on internet issues, German Klimenko, and he said that Roskomnadzor didn’t do so well, and that they should apologize to the businesses whose work was disrupted. There’s just some words and not a lot of action, so I don’t know if there’s a plan going forward.
What are human and internet rights organizations doing in Russia right now in response?
There are some things they could realistically do. There are two human rights organizations that represented Telegram in court, RosKomSvoboda and Agora. Their lawyers said that they’re taking this to the European Court of Human Rights. They’ll have to go through many levels of appeal: They have to first go through all the courts in Russia, and if the Russian supreme court doesn’t overturn the ban, then they can go to European Court of Human Rights.
What they’re also doing right now is saying that if you’re unhappy with what Roskomnadzor is doing, you can also complain to the Ministry of the Interior. They’ve basically created a class-action appeal to the Ministry of the Interior in Russia, and they’re saying you can join this appeal by coming to their office and signing it or by writing your own. They have a set of instructions on how to complain. Another thing they’re asking people to do is to install tools that help verify and measure what is blocked.
They are quite vocal in claiming that if they take this case about Telegram being banned to the European Court of Human Rights, then the court will say that this is not legal. The only thing then is what Russia will do in response to a court decision that would overturn not just the Telegram ban, but also a key provision in the anti-terrorism legislation that was just passed. There’s a part in the legislation saying companies have to share encryption keys. I don’t know how Russia would respond to an international court decision once they have it.
What effect will the Telegram ban have on online privacy in Russia?
This decision banning Telegram is also threatening other similar platforms that protect communications with end-to-end encryption. We’re talking about Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and potentially any other encrypted communication services. All of those could also be banned in Russia using the same principles. Telegram sets a precedent here.
And if that were the case, then that really narrows down the space for private and secure communications. If you aren’t sure that your communications are encrypted, or whether the encryption keys have been shared, that basically means there is very little space for privacy and security for Russian users on the internet. That’s ultimately the danger: It’s not just one platform, it’s the whole principle of encrypted communication that’s under threat.