Earlier this month, the Russian authorities lifted their ban on the Telegram messaging app, citing the company’s willingness to help with its counterterrorism efforts. However, despite the official ban being in effect for over two years, Telegram has reportedly remained accessible in the country for much of that time. In a new feature, The Washington Post has written how Telegram’s founder Pavel Durov, “humiliated and outmaneuvered Russia’s state telecommunications regulator,” in preventing the app from being successfully banned. Unsurprisingly, it’s well worth a read in full.
Telegram initially gained the attention of the Russian authorities because it had reportedly become one of the apps of choice for the country’s opposition groups. The authorities wanted access to the encrypted messages of Telegram users but Durov wasn’t in a hurry to give this up.
Two years ago, Pavel Durov refused to grant Russian security services access to users’ encrypted messages on his popular Telegram messaging app, then a favorite of Russian opposition groups. The reply from authorities was either submit or become wiped off the country’s digital map.
The reason was that Telegram found ways around the regulator’s firewalls. It routed its traffic through US cloud services from the likes of Amazon and Google, hiding it from view. In combination with its changing IP addresses, this meant that when Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet censor, tried to block Telegram, other sites and services got caught in the crossfire, according to Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist and security services expert. But this tactic proved controversial with some companies:
“Telegram effectively made big platforms with lots of users — companies were hosted on them — hostages,” Soldatov said, adding that the digital disturbance raised the awareness of ordinary users who may not have even been on Telegram.
“Opinions were divided over the ethics of these tactics,” Soldatov said. “While digital activists praised it — it made the Telegram issue a national and even international one — the Russian companies hosted on Amazon got blocked due to incompetence of Roskomnadzor. And they blamed Telegram, not the Russian authorities.”
These tactics would reportedly not have worked in countries like Iran or China where internet censorship efforts are more sophisticated, but they were enough to get the Russian authorities to give up on their attempts to ban Telegram. Instead, in a strange twist, government officials appeared to embrace it.
Moscow’s attempts to ban Telegram had a very ironic twist — they were repeatedly undermined by government officials who continued using it. The app eventually morphed into another dissemination tool for state-sponsored news and propaganda.
The Washington Post’s piece is a great look at what a relatively small service was able to achieve when it was determined to stay online, and it’s well worth reading.