Future Tense

Russia “Unbans” a Messaging App Already Used by Millions of Russians

A smartphone showing the Telegram logo
An illustration picture taken on Aug. 16, 2019, in Paris Geoffroy Van Der Hasselt/Getty Images

Russia’s ban on Telegram, a messaging app with end-to-end encryption that’s been called “WhatsApp without any of the icky data sharing with Facebook,” was always tenuous. The botched attempt to stifle the app began in April 2018 when Russia blocked millions of IP addresses, many of which were unassociated with Telegram. But really, Telegram never left Russia. Over the past two years, it’s thrived in the country, with 30 million users, and the coronavirus pandemic has only further delegitimized the official ban: National and regional coronavirus task-forces have established official channels on Telegram and use the app to send out daily updates. Now, the chasm between law and reality has finally been bridged.

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On Thursday, Russia lifted the ban on Telegram, after Russian tech entrepreneur Pavel Durov, the app’s founder, urged the government to do so earlier this month. Federal communications watchdog Roskomnadzor cited Durov’s “readiness to counter terrorism and extremism” as the reason behind the shift, though some Russian media outlets framed the move as the government finally caving. Capitulation or not, it marks the start of a new relationship between the Russian government and the controversial messaging app—and perhaps is a sign that Telegram is willing to abandon, at least in part, its once near-absolute commitment to free speech.

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The original reasons behind Russia’s ban on Telegram were always somewhat veiled. What we know is that Roskomnadzor banned Telegram in April 2018 after the company refused to share its encryption keys and thus give the government access to individuals’ private messages.
Russian officials alleged that this was necessary to combat extremism and terrorist attacks, but Durov refused: He was intent on preserving users’ privacy. Of course, critics had their suspicions. The problem, some believed, was not private messages, but public channels—one of Telegram’s distinctive features—that leak dirt on politicians and the innerworkings of the Kremlin. As Tanya Lokot, an assistant professor at Dublin City University who studies digital media in Russia, told Slate, Telegram serves as an important elite and political “safe space” for debate and discourse.

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Regardless of the Russian government’s exact motives, there’s no denying that extremists and terrorists worldwide have used Telegram. It was, as Just Security reported, the preferred platform of ISIS for four years before it took down most of the ISIS channels last November. As April Glaser wrote in Slate in 2019, Telegram is a home to a medley of anti-establishment groups: white supremacists, anti-PC agitators, and democracy activists in Hong Kong, among others.

These may make for strange bedfellows, but it’s not unexpected that they all found a home on a platform that, as Glaser puts it, is “designed to circumvent censorship in countries like Russia and mass surveillance in the United States.” Telegram has championed privacy and free speech since it was launched in 2013, just after Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance in the U.S. The platform’s decryption keys are scattered across multiple data centers in different jurisdictions around the world, and it doesn’t monetize user data. “To this day, we have disclosed 0 bytes of user data to third parties, including governments,” Telegram’s FAQ page states.

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Telegram’s commitment to free speech, however, hasn’t been as unwavering in the past few years. It’s had to respond to criticism and bans, including a brief removal from the Apple App Store in 2018 for hosting “inappropriate content,” which was reversed after new filters were instated. Mostly, Telegram’s revised policies affect its channels: Telegram now processes requests to take down illegal public, not private, content. The app’s precise standards are unclear, but Telegram affirms that “[w]hile we do block terrorist (e.g. ISIS-related) bots and channels, we will not block anybody who peacefully expresses alternative opinions.”

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These revised policies aren’t likely to assuage a government that has been clear about its intent to access private communications, but Roskomnadzor’s attempted block was so clumsy and ineffective—Russian authorities later experimented with more precise technology, but that was also futile—that it’s certainly possible the government simply gave in. But maybe it makes more sense not to see the government capitulating and Durov’s reported cooperation as mutually exclusive. It’s true that moderation has slowly become a priority for Telegram in the past couple years—and Telegram, like any other service, has to respond to social, market, and governmental pressures if it wants to be as accessible as possible.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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