Update: A game of digital whack-a-mole left Russia’s internet in tatters — and showed the government that censorship in the digital age is easier said than done.
Telegram has denied a request by the Russian state security service to provide backdoor access to encrypted messages on the popular messaging app. Reuters report that Roskomnadzor, the state’s communications authority, has responded by filing a lawsuit on Friday to block access to the company’s services.
The FSB, the Russian security service, has claimed that it needs access to the encrypted messages to counter terrorist plots. It cited the explosion on the St. Petersburg metro system in 2017 as an example, saying the attackers used Telegram to plan the bombing.
In a statement to The Independent, a lawyer for Dubai-based Telegram argued that the Russians’ demands were “technically impossible,” because Telegram uses end-to-end encryption. “It’s very important for us to understand what they have requested, and the legal and evidential basis they are using,” said Ramil Akhmetgalieyev.
Threats to block Telegram unless it gives up private data of its users won't bear fruit. Telegram will stand for freedom and privacy.
— Pavel Durov (@durov) March 20, 2018
Partly because of Telegram’s strong message encryption, the app has also become a widely used unofficial government communication system within the Kremlin. The service, which boasts 200 million users, now features “channels,” which are used in Russia as unofficial anonymous political blogs to circulate talking points and boost voter turnout.
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov even counts on Telegram to organize his daily press briefings. “We use it, it’s very convenient, but the law is the law and we might have to look at different options,” he said.
It’s also unclear how Russia would actually ban the service, as Telegram could bypass the restrictions — unless Russia blocked all messenger traffic within the country. Andrei Soldatov, a Russian telecommunications analyst, told The Independent that the Kremlin is reluctant to go that far.
“There have been all kinds of talks and conversations, and more talks and conversations again, but no one seems ready to make a move against the tech giants,” he said. “People understand that is a political decision taken at the very top.”
German Klimenko, Vladimir Putin’s internet adviser, says there’s an easy solution — just use the Russian equivalent of AOL’s Instant Messenger instead. “People have forgotten about ICQ [a 21-year-old instant messaging service],” he said. “It’s a fully-fledged messenger, and absolutely in no way inferior to Telegram for the average user.”
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