Last Friday, a Russian court ruled against the encrypted messaging app Telegram for refusing to grant Russian authorities access to its chats. Telegram argued that it was technically unable to do this, as the chats are encrypted on users’ devices. The government countered that Telegram should then rewrite the app’s software to make it possible. Telegram refused.
On Monday, the government began efforts to block access to Telegram. That started a chain of events that interfered with businesses and organizations throughout Russia, but failed to prevent most Russian users from accessing Telegram.
Russia’s main media and telecommunications censorship body, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, also called by its Russian abbreviation Roskomnadzor, ordered Russia’s ISPs to block access to IP addresses that used Telegram.
This is easier said than done. Telegram uses domain fronting, a technique for evading censorship by connecting through a series of servers. Domain fronting is essentially a proxy for the hosting provider—it allows the content owner, in this case Telegram, to direct users to their content through multiple connections. Telegram’s initial connection is through the global cloud computing services provided by Amazon and Google, so when Russia’s censors look for forbidden Telegram domains, all they see is Amazon and Google. Telegram began using this technique last December following efforts by Iran to censor the messenger during protests in that country.
As long as Telegram has access to the considerable resources of Amazon and Google, completely blocking it will be difficult. If Roskomnadzor blocks a particular IP address or domain, Telegram can move to another. These are pushed to users via the cloud computing provider outside of Russia, in this case Google and Amazon. The Russian government has little insight.
In a bid to prevent Telegram from moving between multiple Amazon and Google IP addresses, Roskomnadzor took the unprecedented step of ordering ISPs to block almost 16 million IP addresses, in the hopes of blocking a significant portion of those used by Telegram. Unsurprisingly for such a large number, Telegram was not the only user of so many IP addresses, and as a result of the blocks multiple companies in Russia found themselves cut off from the internet.
Gamers hoping to use Nintendo’s online service were blocked, as were Volvo dealerships running aftermarket diagnostics programs, Viber users, and ticket sales for museums in the Kremlin. Roskomnadzor may have even censored itself: Its website was inaccessible and its system for monitoring compliance with filtering orders was offline for a short time. The legal advocacy organization Agora reported that it received complaints from 73 companies and will be pressing charges on their behalf.
One company that does not appear to be significantly impacted is Telegram. Telegram has remained largely available to Russian users. Roskomnadzor claims that the blocks cut off 30 percent of Russian traffic to Telegram, but Telegram says that figure is closer to 5 percent. Those that do encounter blocks are able to circumvent them using Virtual Private Networks and proxies. Russian users unsure where they could find a VPN are currently surrounded by ads for VPNs on social media taking advantage of the high-profile situation to promote their particular services.
Popular Telegram channels report that views and subscriptions are increasing with the ban providing them with a bit of a Streisand effect. Telegram founder Pavel Durov reports that Telegram has not observed a significant drop in engagement, and promised a million dollars in bitcoin to developers of VPNs and other services that allow users to keep their access.
Opposition resources appear to be benefiting as well. Sites unavailable to many readers because they were already blocked are now accessible to Russians using VPNs to access Telegram.
Even the government’s leadership seems to be having a hard time quitting Telegram. On Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov used a conference call with journalists organized on Telegram to announce that his office would soon move to another service.
That service would be ICQ, the messenger last popular in the West in the late 1990s. ICQ maintained some popularity in Russia for a bit longer, lasting until it was replaced in recent years by messengers like Telegram. At the time, the Russian government explored multiple options to control ICQ, first floating regulation, then the idea of funding a Russian competitor, before settling on its purchase in 2010 by Digital Sky Technologies. The company is headed by Yuri Milner, a Russian billionaire with ties to the Russian government known in the West for his investments in Facebook and Twitter.
While Russians could shift to ICQ—or more likely, other encrypted messengers like Signal or WhatsApp—many will probably stay with Telegram. It is the messenger they already know and use, but it is also more than just a means for private communication.
In addition to private chats, Telegram supports channels. These channels can be joined by large numbers of people and are used to discuss a range of topics from pop culture to business development. Among them are channels for sharing news, political discussions and rumors without state interference, and for organizing opposition activity and protests.
These groups attracted government displeasure, and played an important role in the decision to take such drastic measures against Telegram, but they are not the only ones. Another group of Telegram users that understandably concerns the Russian government is terrorists, including ISIS and terrorists in Russia. The Federal Security Service, or FSB, has said that it has “reliable information” that terrorists used Telegram to plan a terrorist attack on the St. Petersburg metro that killed 15 people in April 2017. The ability to share information in more public channels while conducting secure chats all in one place is as attractive to them as it is to anti-corruption activists.
These terrorists are a concern, but they are a small number of users and already showed signs of migrating from Telegram after all the publicity about their use of the platform. The terrorists are now an excuse to clumsily go after the entire app, and with it, 16 million IP addresses and the businesses that rely on them.
The apparent failure to stop Telegram and high level of collateral damage has many observers snickering at Roskomnadzor and the Russian government. It could be easy to dismiss it as yet another example of Russian efforts at regulating the internet by people who do not understand how it works. However, this time there may be a bigger strategy than simply knocking Telegram offline with the internet equivalent of a very a large hammer.
This is not the first time that Russia used pressure on Amazon and Google’s cloud services to silence a messenger. That was the walkie-talkie app Zello. Beginning in 2016, Russian truck drivers conducted a series of organized protests against a road tax system jointly operated by the state and the Rotenberg brothers, two oligarchs known for their personal friendship with Vladimir Putin. The truckers used Zello to coordinate protests.
When Russia attempted to censor Zello, that app avoided censorship efforts using Amazon and Google cloud services to move between IP addresses. Earlier this month, the Russian government threatened to block 15 million IP addresses if cloud service providers did not cease assisting Zello. Amazon was the first to give in, asking Zello to leave. The company then moved to Google, but after about 10 days Google also gave in to Russian pressure asked Zello to stop using their services.
That successful pressure may be why Roskomnadzor is pursuing such a drastic course of action against Telegram now. Telegram is bigger than Zello, and better known, which makes cutting it off more difficult for cloud service providers such as Amazon and Google. Roskomnadzor may be hoping that a demonstrated willingness to cause the companies’ customers real pain in pursuit of a block may encourage cooperation in this case, or in future efforts to block sites. It could also serve as a deterrent to companies considering refusing to cooperate with Russian authorities.
One of those companies could be Facebook. In an interview with the newspaper Izvestia, Roskomnadzor head Aleksander Zharov said that his agency would be investigating Facebook by the end of the year if it did not comply with a law requiring that the personal data of all Russians be stored in Russia, the same law that Roskomnadzor cited as justification for blocking Zello. Zharov previously announced plans to investigate Twitter for the same law as well, although Roskomnadzor already announced that Twitter agreed to comply.
All of which should be a concern not just to Russians, but to the whole world. If these intimidation tactics work in Russia, then there is nothing stopping other governments from doing the same, as long as they are willing to let their businesses suffer the consequences. This may even have already begun. This Wednesday, Iran announced that officials were forbidden from using Telegram and further censorship may follow.