Telegram App Hanging on in Russia But Facing an Uncertain Future

Social media messaging app Telegram is officially banned in Russia, in spite of its 14 million users there. In embarrassing revelations, however, senior politicians have responded with outrage to being caricatured with memes on the platform, responding on the platform no one Russian is supposed to be on. Officially, no one – and especially not city majors and others – are supposed to be able to access Telegram in the country, yet the mayor of Krasnoyarsk, Sergei Eremin, has been complaining loudly after being pilloried on the platform.

Several memes on a channel on Telegram have made fun of the mayor, and Eremin has taken the bait. Telegram emerged mid-2013 as the darling of modern Russian messaging apps, having been founded by brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, although Pavel Durov is the far more visible face of the company. The brothers are also the co-creators of VK, a massive social messaging network in Russia.

In rather draconian behaviour, during June 2017, the Russian comms watchdog Roskomnadzor demanded that Telegram give the Russian security police (FSB) its encryption keys. Pavel Durov refused, and a Moscow court ordered the blocking of Telegram thereafter. Durov had fled the country in 2014, after being forced to “sign over” his other platform VKontakte (VK) to businesses linked to the Kremlin. A typical strong-arm “engineering” of business outcomes common to Russian, it was obvious at the time that political heavyweights were robbing Durov to benefit their inner circle.

In April of 2018, a Russian court ordered the blocking of non-compliant Telegram in Russia, although it’s still alive and well on home soil. Many Russians at the time simply switched to open proxies available in other countries, although, in reality, the “ban” has proved impossible to enforce.

The sin of free speech

In part, because the Russian state is still broadly ill at ease with rank freedom of speech, Telegram had to be investigated. In an amusing depiction of the freedom that the internet began, the freedom that modern connectivity just keeps improving, the mighty Russian bear hasn’t managed to quash Telegram just yet, however.

Telegram allows users to send text, photos, voice notes and indeed all types of files. Groups on the app can also have up to 200,000 members. Those who employ the chat app WhatsApp will recognise Telegram immediately, as it employs the same one-click-sent-and-two-clicks-read status indicators, for one thing. According to 2018 figures, Telegram has around 200 million users, with around seven per cent being Russian citizens.

Interestingly, Pavel Durov recently alleged that competing app WhatsApp would “never be secure” and is possibly contaminated with government oversight. WhatsApp is the global leader in messaging apps, owned by Facebook, and possibly bedevilling users’ lives with spyware. With the company having recently flagged the possibility that spyware could have infiltrated users’ phones by using the app, Durov maintains this indicates the potential of “backdoor” access by government or other interests. Supposedly equipped with end to end encryption, it appears that WhatsApp is not as secure as most would like to believe.

It was precisely the strong encryption at play in Telegram that finally provoked Russian authorities to attack the app and its founder. The maverick programmer Durov maintains that such a warning from the company indicates the likelihood of bad actors involved with WhatsApp. The Telegram CEO expressed the opinion that WhatsApp would be perpetually open to surveillance, and said that “WhatsApp has a consistent history – from zero encryption at its inception to a succession of security issues strangely suitable for surveillance purposes.”

In his online post, Durov noted that each time a vulnerability appeared with WhatsApp and was patched, a new issue seemed to arise shortly thereafter. WhatsApp has around 1.5 billion global users, something Durov feels certain would be of huge interest to the FBI or other US government agencies. “For WhatsApp to become a privacy-oriented service,” Durov wrote, “it has to risk losing entire markets and clashing with authorities in their home country,” a reality Durov knows only too well.

Telegram shut down in Russia, yet rolling on regardless

Russian authorities in 2018 ordered local ISPs to block Telegram after Durov refused to comply with the demand for encryption keys. The “Yarovaya law,” which mandates that telecom operators preserve their clients’voice and messaging activity for six months, took effect in Russia mid-2018. Under this law, Russian courts pursued Telegram, trying to compel it to store all encryption keys and also hand them over to the FSB if and when ordered to do so. Durov maintains that since the keys are stored on individual users’ phones, this would be impossible or, at least, technically challenging, and unethical.

 Durov said that such a demand would violate the constitutionally enshrined right for Russian citizens to enjoy privacy in correspondence. The FSB had, even before the Yarovaya law taking effect, been badgering Durov for encryption keys while ostensibly in pursuit of six suspected terrorists who employed the platform. Durov responded by pointing out that, apart from the demand being an obnoxious violation of all users’ rights, the six targeted suspects had either never employed Telegram accounts, or had since been deleted because of inactivity in regular housekeeping exercises at Telegram.

Particularly shameless, the FSB at the time had also demanded that Durov either design or otherwise install monitoring technology on the platform, to enable clandestine surveillance by authorities in future.

Durov’s woes did not go unnoticed. During April 2018, protests in support of a free internet were staged in cities around Russia, with residents throwing paper aeroplanes (the Telegram symbol) from rooftops. No doubt raising the further ire of authorities, the protest actions were planned and coordinated via Telegram. Durov came out in support of the protests but asked that protesters please pick up their paper planes when done.

Telegram is now also on the Indian government’s radar after that regime began clamping down on fake news. There are concerns that the app will soon face an outright ban in India. The app is among many being looked at as sources of fake news and is not alone in hot water. The reality of any countrywide ban, however, as Russian realities have shown, is that Telegram is likely to continue unabated, whether authorities in India ban it or not.