Attempts to block popular messaging app Telegram have backfired in Russia.
When Evgeny first heard that Russia’s communications censor Roskomnadzor was going to block the popular messenger app Telegram, it brought to mind a Soviet-era slogan. The Communist Party said: “It must be done!” The Komsomol – the party’s youth wing – responded: “Aye!”
Policies today get applied without much deliberation, just like Soviet times, he explained. “It feels as though it’s a bunch of ignorant people who don’t understand anything, who did not consult any experts, that did this,” said Evgeny, who requested that his second name not be mentioned for fear of intimidation by the authorities.
On April 16, Roskomnadzor started trying to block Telegram after what it said was the company’s failure to comply with a Russian law on dissemination of information. But by the time the censor told mobile operators to limit access to the app’s services, Evgeny and the team of the start-up he works for had already set up a proxy service to ensure that internal communications chats and their company Telegram channel continued to work smoothly. He said he and his team would not give up using the app.
Reacting to the use of proxies, Roskomnadzor had to expand its blocking efforts, inadvertently affecting IP addresses of various other companies.
“[Roskomnadzor] managed to block [other businesses], cashiers of supermarkets stopped working. Imagine, I go to the store, and I can’t buy food because of Roskomnadzor,” Evgeny told Al Jazeera in a call over Telegram.
The “collateral damage” caused outrage across Russia, evoking even criticism from government officials.
A week into Roskomnadzor’s campaign, it not only has failed to fully block the app, but it has made it more popular. In fact, the backlash against the censor and acts of defiance by Telegram users have already made some in Russia talk of an “internet civil war”.
Durov vs the system
The standoff between Roskomnadzor and Telegram goes back to June 2017, when the communications censor issued an open letter saying the app was violating Russian law on “organisers of information dissemination”. The law – part of a number of anti-terrorism measures passed by the Russian Duma in the early 2010s – stipulates that entities designated by the state as such have to store user information in Russia for six months and give access to it to law enforcement.
Roskomnadzor demanded the company hand in encryption keys, so that security agencies could access user messages. Russia-born Telegram CEO Pavel Durov responded that the encryption technology used in the app did not allow its creators to have access to those keys.
Eventually, a Russian court ruled in Roskomnadzor’s favour, allowing the censor to proceed with blocking the app.
Preempting the move, Telegram had already introduced a proxy option that enabled users to log in with an IP address from another country, circumventing geo-blocking.
Most Telegram users Al Jazeera talked to said they had enabled the option; others, such as Evgeny, installed their own VPN services, which not only allow users to log in from other countries but also encrypt the data they send.
State institutions, many of which also operate official Telegram channels, had also bought VPN equipment ahead of the blocking campaign. Various news outlets also started circulating instructions on how to use proxies and VPN services.
Foreseeing a storm of negative reactions from the Russian public, Pavel Chikov, a lawyer and member of the rights organisation Agora, which represents Durov in the case, posted on his Telegram channel on April 16: “An internet civil war has started.”
Throughout the week, Russian Telegram users and media continued to report that they were using the app without a problem.
Durov also posted on his Telegram channel that there hasn’t been “a significant drop in user engagement” and that to support “internet freedom”, he would start giving out bitcoin grants to “individuals and companies who run socks5 proxies and VPN”.
According to Stanislav Shakirov, technical director of Roskomsvoboda (a wordplay on Roskomnadzor meaning RoskomFreedom), an anti-censorship NGO, Telegram has managed to weather the pressure because of its well-made architecture.
“[Telegram architects] had set up a rotation of servers which the app links up to. This makes it difficult for Roskomnadzor to block it,” Shakirov explained.
“By the time Roskomnadzor requests mobile operators to block an IP address, the app had already moved onto another.”
The use of VPN and proxy services has also helped. Traffic to VPNlove.me, a website Roskomsvoboda set up as a guide to using VPN services, increased 15-20 times, he said.
Scrambling to block a massive number of IP addresses, which reached 20 million on April 19, Roskomnadzor ran up against another problem: the disruption of other services using the same IP address clusters as Telegram.
Mid-week, reports started coming in of various companies experiencing difficulties with their online operations: from international companies such as Viber and taxi service Gett, to Russian ticket booking service Kupiblet and supermarket chains like Diksi.
On Thursday, Chikov reported on his Telegram channel that some 120 companies – among them small businesses, internet stores and VPN operators – had reached out to Agora requesting help to get unblocked.
In a statement to Al Jazeera, Roskomnadzor’s press office said that “most disruptions in the functioning of websites which have been announced were due to other reasons and were not at all connected to measures undertaken against Telegram”.
On Sunday, access to Google’s search engine was also limited for Russian users. On its page on social media platform VKontakte, Roskomnadzor announced it was blocking many IP addresses of Google’s cloud service because the company refused to stop helping Telegram evade blocking.
The growing discontent over the disruptions prompted German Klimenko, adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin on internet development, to say that Roskomnadzor should apologise for the problems it had caused.
‘Subversion and guerrilla tactics’
The campaign against Telegram has also had some unintended consequences. Russian media outlet RBC reported that Telegram traffic in Russia increased early last week, while the number of downloads from the Android app store doubled compared with a week earlier.
On Sunday, many Russians, like Evgeny, heeded a call by Telegram’s CEO to join a symbolic gesture of support for the company and throw a paper plane out of a window – a reference to the app’s logo. Videos of the campaign flooded social media.
According to blogger and activist Alexander Brusentsev, the blocking efforts have also boosted the technical literacy of some Russians by encouraging them to learn about proxies and VPN services, which they wouldn’t have done otherwise. It has also driven some to resist Roskomnadzor’s censorship efforts.
“People find it interesting to watch how Roskomnadzor can’t do anything, and they find it even more interesting to help make sure this continues to be so,” he told Al Jazeera via Telegram.
“Subversion and guerrilla tactics are actively being used and will continue to be used in the future.”
Brusentsev himself ran into problems with Roskomnadzor in 2017 and had to leave Russia temporarily after the censor accused him of “tampering” with the blocking of websites.
Throughout last week, Roskomnadzor’s website was intermittently unavailable. The censor blamed the disruption on DDoS attacks.
Asked about whether there was indeed an “internet war” in Russia, the censor’s press office responded that, “Roskomnadzor is taking a set of measures in order to fulfil a decision by a Russian Federation court in relation to a company that is ignoring Russian law.”
China-style ‘Great Firewall’
It is not the first time that a product developed by Russian entrepreneur Durov was hit by controversy. In 2006 he founded the social network VKontakte (In Contact), which quickly came to dominate the Russian market.
Eight years later, he resigned as CEO and left Russia. Durov claimed he was forced out because he refused to shut down Russian opposition activist Alexey Navalny’s account in VKontakte, and because oligarchs close to Putin wanted “full control” over the social network.
It is also not the first time that Roskomnadzor, which was established as a separate agency 10 years ago, has blocked messenger apps.
In May 2017, the censor included the apps BlackBerry Messenger, imo, Line, и Vchat on its list of banned websites after they also refused to comply with provisions of the “organisations of information dissemination” law. The registry of banned websites was established in 2012.
According to Shakirov, Russian authorities could be using the blocking of Telegram as a test before they go on to other much bigger internet companies.
“Our government wants the Chinese model in which all Western services are replaced by local, sovereign ones. They’ve started with Telegram, which is popular but not so powerful service,” he said.
If the plan of establishing a China-style “Great Firewall” in Russia goes forward, IT giants such as Facebook could face a choice between “losing the Russian market, or losing their reputation”, he said.
But Roskomnadzor’s actions against Telegram and the pursuit of greater control over the internet could have far-reaching negative consequences on Russian businesses as well. According to Evgeny, the blocking of Telegram already has negatively affected the business climate.
Over the years, he has observed a notable trend of capital flight from the country, as many companies have registered in Western countries to avoid being subject to Russia’s ever-changing laws.
“We are kind of tired of such [decisions] by the state: Let’s block this or let’s ban that,” he said. “Let’s just live like North Korea without internet.”
Follow Mariya Petkova on Twitter: @mkpetkova
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