It may have become the de facto messaging app for the top Kremlin officials, but Telegram’s days in Russia may soon be numbered. On Friday, Roskomnadzor, the state’s communications authority, asked a local court to block access to the company’s services.
The agency had given Telegram 15 days to provide backdoor keys to encrypted messages – a request that was refused by the tech giant.
Ramil Akhmetgalieyev, a lawyer acting for the company, told The Independent, that the demands were “technically impossible”. The company had yet to be sent the detail of the lawsuit, he added. Without it they would not make further comment: “It’s very important for us to understand what they have requested, and the legal and evidential basis they are using.”
In public statements, the FSB, Russia’s security service, has claimed encrypted messenger apps have become the toys of terrorists and criminals. Telegram was singled out for its supposed role in a terrorist attack on the St Petersburg metro system a year ago.
But many suspect political considerations have played a role in the new regulatory activity.
There is much history between Pavel Durov, Telegram’s maverick founder, and the Russian authorities. In 2014, a hostile state takeover forced him out of his own company, Russia’s largest social network, VK. He has since styled himself as a crusader fighting against state surveillance. Telegram became “revenge” for VK, he even claimed.
In just a few years, it has grown to 200 million users. Its remit has also widened. No longer just a private messenger service, it now features “channels,” including, in Russia, many anonymous and influential political blogs. A channel can be described as a kind of public message board.
According to Mr Durov, Telegram’s encryption is strong enough to shut out government eyes. The ongoing battle with regulators would suggest that might well be true. But his critics have drawn attention to the company’s lack of transparency, evidence of massive investment from Kremlin-linked oligarchs and the fact many coders have remained in Russia to suggest the relationship with authorities may be more complex.
Telegram has also become the favourite messenger service for many within the Kremlin walls. Much informal government business is now conducted using it. In last month’s election campaign, dozens of Telegram channels told loyal officials about new talking points, and ways of boosting turnout. The presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov organises his daily press briefings via the application.
Mr Peskov said it would be a “shame” were a compromise not to be reached. “We use it, it’s very convenient, but the law is the law and we might have to look at different options,” he told journalists on Friday.
There are doubts whether regulators will be able to follow up on a promise to block the service. According to Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the Russian internet, Telegram will likely be able to circumvent restrictions by disguising traffic. It would then be up to authorities to block all messenger traffic – a move, he says, the Kremlin are reluctant to take.
Russia is already engaged in a stand-off with leading global tech companies, who have refused to abide by 2015 regulation demanding they move servers to Russia.
“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,” said Mr Soldatov. “People understand that is a political decision taken at the very top.”
A press spokesperson for the Tagansky district court has said it would make a decision on whether to accept the lawsuit within the next five days. If Russia were to ban Telegram, it would join a very select group of countries: Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, China and Kazakhstan.
German Klimenko, Vladimir Putin’s internet adviser, suggested any user panic resulting from a ban could be easily managed – and with a somewhat retro solution.
“People have forgetten about ICQ [a twenty-one 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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