Russia’s Telegram ban is a big, convoluted mess

If you want to know the reason I’m not on WhatsApp with its other 1.5 billion users, the answer is Telegram. To people unfamiliar with it, I like to describe Telegram as simply WhatsApp without any of the icky data sharing with Facebook. It has been my favorite, most reliable messaging client, and its platform-agnostic design means I can access my messages across iPhones, Android devices, and desktop browsers. I’m a big fan of Telegram, which is part of why its present ban in its native Russia troubles me.

Telegram got its start, and its initial funding, under the premise of providing a messaging tool that was shielded from the inquisitive glare of Russian spy agencies. Its effectiveness in pursuing that original goal has been demonstrated this month with the ruling by a Russian court that Telegram should be banned in the country, owing to the app’s makers refusing to hand over encryption keys to the Russian government.

Now, granted, Telegram has earned unwanted notoriety for being a favored dissemination method for terrorist propaganda and a tool for organizing terrorist acts, but that’s the fate that awaits any privacy-focused, end-to-end encrypted messaging service. Russia’s ban seems to be a transparent effort to gain control and oversight of the messaging habits of ordinary Russians.

While the court ruling was handed down on Friday, implementation of the ban didn’t commence until Monday, when the various local ISPs started blocking Telegram through the clumsy method of, um, blocking 15.8 million IPs on Amazon and Google’s cloud platforms. Telegram routes traffic through those US cloud services to circumvent Russian state interference — but so do many other Russian businesses, and since the block isn’t smart enough to isolate Telegram, it’s led to a heap of trouble and malfunctions for online banking and retail services across the country. The large scale of this “collateral damage” provides an apt illustration of the importance Russia places on pushing Telegram to either comply with its demands or perish.

In related measures, Russia’s telecommunications regulator has asked Apple and Google to pull Telegram from their app stores, requested that popular sideloading site APK Mirror also cease serving Telegram (which would be the first alternative for Android users, should Google comply and pull Telegram from the Play Store), and even urged VPN providers to prevent Telegram messages from getting through.

Alongside the block, Russian state-backed media has served up scare stories like “5 acts of terrorism organized on Telegram” and the recommendation to switch to TamTam as a solid Telegram alternative. Unsurprisingly, TamTam is no such thing. It’s a poor Telegram clone operated by Mail.ru, which is owned by Alisher Usmanov, who in turn has been named a “Putin crony” by US senators. Another amusing side note is that TamTam itself went down for a while yesterday due to the brute-force Telegram block, joining a couple of major banks, Mastercard’s 3D Secure feature, and some retail chains in malfunctioning.

To get a better idea of Telegram’s use in Russia, the government’s motivations in blocking it, and the full effect of the present ban, I asked two Russian friends for their thoughts. Both are near my age, based in Moscow, and working in the sphere of technology and communications.

How important is Telegram in Russia? Do you feel like you have a viable alternative to use, such as WhatsApp, which is also encrypted?

Anton Nekhaenko: Telegram is very important to certain narrow margins of society. Russian society is a huge sea of Viber, with puddles of WhatsApp here and there, and Telegram is for the small affluent margin. It’s a drop in a bucket.

To me, Telegram is as important as WhatsApp, but in a different way. One-on-one communications are not the bulk of stuff I do on Telegram. It’s primarily channels. Channels are really the whole problem that the government is currently having with Telegram. Not some shady terrorist chats.

In Russia, in particular, there are a lot of channels that deliver current news and analysis anonymously. A lot of channels with dirt on politicians and officials, some of it is unconfirmed, of course, but it’s out there. Whole newspaper articles get written on the basis of that dirt. People in power then maybe participate in that by heaping dirt on their opponents, but they don’t like it when it happens to them.

Mary Glazkova: There are 12 million users, and it feels like most of them are in Moscow. Though there are WhatsApp and Viber, most people are sticking with Telegram and trying to use proxy and VPN now. The user geography of Telegram is showing more visitors from the UK, USA, France, and other EU countries — which are actually Russians trying to avoid the ban. Telegram is used for both business and personal. Now, those who decided to save $50–120 on VPNs are using other messengers. I can say FB Messenger is one of the top to replace Telegram.

How much do you rely on Telegram? How did you experience the block, and have you figured out a way to evade it yet?

AN: Other than yourself and a few other friends, I don’t use it for messaging. I’m on a few groups where I discuss technology with friends. I follow a few channels about programming, a few about technology in general, a couple of political ones, and a few channels with really saucy memes. Young people are yearning for non-algorithmic shit, which Telegram has nailed with its channels and memes.

I’m using a proxy server that a friend, who’s been using it for work, just opened up for the rest of us in a Telegram tech group. A couple of days before the court ruling, a majority of Russian Telegram channels started reblogging and serving up instructions on how to set up proxies and VPN workarounds. Not just tech channels, general-interest channels, too. As of now, I’m using the proxy, but Telegram seems to still be working for a lot of people even without it. The ISP block has caused Viber calls to go down, though, which is a very big deal in Russia.

MG: The block took effect yesterday, and my friends told me they experienced troubles in accessing Gmail and some online stores. A lot of people are using NordVPN and Betterinternet to access Telegram. People not only tend to trust the app (I’m not sure about how many are really keen on privacy), but Telegram is also very simple, fast, and has a nice UI. (It has stickers. People love stickers!)

You’re based in Moscow. What are the local and national media telling you about the ban? Is it big news in the country?

AN: That’s the problem. I don’t follow the local media news organizations. A few that I do follow, they mention it, and they keep updating, and it’s on Twitter, too. But as for big government media, I don’t follow that. Government media is all toxic propaganda bullshit about Ukraine, Syria, and so on. They just spin whatever the government wants them to spin. Why would I want to open my brain to that?

MG: Yes, all top-tier newspapers covered the issue. Actually, I received the message in Telegram from one of the Telegram channels. All media have telegram channels. Had. Now they don’t post.

Do a lot of young Russians get their news via Telegram channels like this?

AN: A lot of people in my circle don’t follow national news outlets. They just tweet the news at each other. They are marginalized in the news agenda, so to speak. What they want to speak about and learn about is on YouTube, on Twitter, on Telegram, but it’s not on TV. There are a few independent newspapers, whose websites are more popular than the printed edition.

Telegram channels feel more personal, a saucier take on the same current events as the newspapers discuss. And that’s what people want, I guess. Young Russians are more interested in social gossip like which rapper slept with which model rather than news and politics. Politics is too remote, they don’t feel like there’s a legitimate political process to engage with. Memes are the only thing worth engaging with because it’s shits and giggles.

MG: In Moscow, yes, I guess. For instance, there is a channel called Merciless PR Person. It has almost 37,000 followers, and it covers PR scandals, different stories about top companies’ PR problems, and discusses PR people in a hilarious way. I don’t read Russian media sites and, of course, I don’t buy newspapers here, but Telegram channels were very useful.

Is that sort of content something you can’t get in regular, presumably state-controlled media?

AN: State-controlled media have people who are on top of everything happening in the meme world, but whenever they try to engage with it, it turns out totally lame. And who wants lame? They are of no relevance to the younger generation.

MG: Exactly.

Do you think this ban will last?

AN: I honestly don’t know. This ban has obviously inconvenienced a lot of people. But when something in Russia inconveniences ordinary people, it’s of no matter to people in power at all. People of Putin’s generation would rather the internet did not exist at all. So long as it only troubles ordinary people, the ban will continue.

MG: I would say yes. It’s because of the courts. You could file an appeal, I guess, but that takes forever for anything to happen.

AN: My mom’s take: “Thank God repressions are handled by such incompetent idiots. My family remembers full well how it was when they were carried out by professionals.”

Comments

but that’s the fate that awaits any privacy-focused, end-to-end encrypted messaging service.

Are you serious? Telegram is not e2e by default, they rolled out their own encryption protocol that while haven been broke is not an standard practice for a privacy oriented service. The primary feature used by dissidents and opposition in Telegram is their channels to share articles and information about the movements, channels are not e2e and they can’t be encrypted in any way like a private chat.

So I don’t know what all the privacy focus bit is on that sentence but I can say that Telegram is the go to app not because its encrypted but because it makes it easier to share information across thousands of user.

Pardon me, are you disagreeing with the statement you quoted or are you just grabbing it as a starting point to unload your prepared remarks about Telegram?

I disagree with your statement that Telegram is a privacy focus app and it makes it seem that you are implying Telegram is used because of it.

I don’t believe either is correct because of the reasons I wrote above, I live in a oppressed country and we use Telegram to share information outside of the state media bubble not because its encrypted (the whole country uses Whatsapp for day to day comm) but because is easier, manageable etc.

Telegram’s entire creation was to provide privacy from governmental snooping. You may disagree with its effectiveness, and people may not be using it with privacy as their foremost consideration — both valid points — but neither of those two things invalidates the notion that Telegram itself was created with privacy as a primary consideration.

Instead of imputing improper implications on my part, you could just express your opinion and personal experience. What country are you in? Because it sounds almost exactly the same as Russia.

Venezuela, most of the media is under government hands and they have a gag like law. The biggest ISP is state owned, they block whatever they want and things like this has happened multiple times here, blocking cloud services because a blog was on those IPs.

They have blocked Twitter multiple times during the biggest riots in 2014 and 2015.

Most serious journalist and activist here use Signal but Whatsapp is good enough for us for now at least.

One theory is that they have had help from China or Russia to do this things because both countries are deeply tied to the current government.

Telegram was blocked in Russia precisely for their advertised privacy features, and yeah, it can be assumed that it is a privacy focused app, even though not all its features offer the protection.

Most of the Venezuelan government blocks are on a DNS level, so just changing your DNS is enough to circumvent their blocks.
I never had the need for a VPN while living in Venezuela for censorship, the only time I remember using a VPN to access a blocked service was when Brasil restricted whatsapp, which also affected Venezuela.

Instead of imputing improper implications

Nice one.

Is there any reason why you seemed to do everything you could not to mention Signal? It’s known as the true leader in private messaging. Telegram always gets torn apart by privacy wonks anytime it’s mentioned, and you seemed to pretend Whatsapp is the only alternative, which use Signal’s (OWS) encryption.

Correction, channels are encrypted to server but not end to end encrypted.

It’s nice to see an article on this from someone I trust in media. I’ve used Telegram a few years now simply because it has more functionality than the majority of others (I honestly do not get the love of iMessage so many people in the US seem to have, I mean, it’s fine..) and on-top of this there is the option for security, if we trust it.

And if the Russian government is going to war with it, perhaps it is as trustworthy as Durov said.

I do not use any social media anymore, and it has been curious to see over the last several months more of my contacts showing up on Telegram. I asked two of them at work recently, did some fallout on FaceBook happen? Did finally people stop being so lazy as to bitch about WhatsApp etc but still not swap to something else? Turns out, they did not really know. It’s just happening, and so they also tried it.

And so now I wonder, why is Signal not the default go-to in this case? It has built in Censorship Circumvention. Not something I could test, being in Germany/UK. But it’s right there in the settings.

Trump backs off sanctions on Russia, making a mockery of his state department and now that kooky Haley (incompetence personified).

Start voting for people who care about this stuff.

Being a Russian in Moscow, I certainly hope that this insane fight will be over soon and RKN will just give up. I understand that they have to try and make it look like their existence is in any way justified, but it looks like they picked on someone too large this time.

One thing that boggles my mind is how passive the people here are. Apparently most of them don’t get that it’s Telegram today, Facebook tomorrow. This sets a super dangerous precedent, but I guess majority of population wouldn’t know that since they only watch state news.

You’ve gotta be trolling. Telegram is not any more secure or private than WhatsApp. Telegram is not transparent or use an open encryption protocol. Messages are not encrypted by default, unlike WhatsApp now. They collect your information like WhatsApp does too, and their lack of transparency doesn’t help.

Check your information:
https://www.securemessagingapps.com/
(On privacy, they are rated as poor just like WhatsApp)

If you want people to switch to a more secure app, try Signal. Getting people to switch to Telegram from WhatsApp is a horizontal move at best. Quite frankly, stick with the app that your friends are on.

Agreed. Telegram isn’t actually secure, y’all. Consider it a warning.

If you’re invested in disagreement on this point, it’s presumably because you enjoy Telegram as an app and have gotten into the daily habit of using it, in which case you — particularly — would seem to have a vested interest in surveying the current expert opinions for yourself. (Experts in crypto, security, counterintelligence, et cetera — not tech news.)

shrug

Couldn’t hurt, right? Maybe I’m nuts after all, and you’ll feel better for having made sure. In the meantime, don’t waste your breath on dumb little ‘ol me — for one thing, I’m not an expert; I’m just someone who spends a lot of time trying to keep up with them, amplifying their message when appropriate — and I don’t have a dog in this fight anyway.

Happy messaging.

Most folks who really care about privacy use signal over telegram. What Russia is doing is terrible, and is a great reason a p2p messaging app, w/ a privacy focus, needs to be developed. I know there are some ethereum projects in the pipe just for this reason.

CENTRALIZATION LEADS TO CENSORSHIP, ALWAYS!

I remember reading an article in gizmodo a little while ago saying Telegram shouldn’t be trusted as ‘secure’ in that it doesn’t enable end-to-end encryption by default. So I went back and found that article. In it?

One major problem Telegram has is that it doesn’t encrypt chats by default, something the FBI has advocated for.

My my, how times have changed!

Someone needs to send this article to Apple as an example of how a company that really cares about privacy can fight an oppressive government.

Why is Apple in the picture now?

they make money
no wait
no I don’t know

Apple folded when an oppressive government told them to. Telegram didn’t.

you mean the same company that refused to give access to FBI?

The FBI told them to build a backdoor. They didn’t ask for access to the data.

Good. Russians: if you’re mad about this, please overthrow your dictator.

This does NOTHING to deter actual terrorists and criminals in Russia, NOTHING! Pure totalitarian surveillance bullshit, China and Russia suck, I feel sorry for their people.

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