What is Telegram and what role does it play in maintaining a free internet?
By: Alex Vardanyan
As Russia comes closer to the 2018 presidential election, we receive more and more news of internet censorship. This week Moscow district court fined the messenger app Telegram 800,000 rubles ($14,000) for refusing to obey orders from the Federal Security Service (FSB) to decode user correspondence. First threats from the Russian authorities began this summer, when notoriously famous Roskomnadzor (Russia’s federal communications censor) added Telegram to the government’s registry earlier this year, after threatening to block the service. Intensified censorship of the internet in the country began in 2016 when scandalous Yarovaya laws package was passed. This new bills amended the pre-existing counter-terrorism law to expand authority for law enforcement agencies and introduce new requirements for data collection and mandatory deciphering in the telecommunications industry. For Pavel Durov, the founder of Telegram and VK.com, the most popular website in Russia, this isn’t the first encounter with governmental regulators.
While government pressure on independent businesses became a casualty of Vladimir Putin’s regime, the government’s attempts to establish control over the Internet the same way they have over TV and newspapers is unprecedented. The Internet has become the last resort for independent media in Russia and government interventions spark a lot of outrage in the Russian public. On July 23rd an estimate of three to four thousand people came out for a peaceful protest against the government surveillance, prohibition of anonymizer’s and censorship of political opposition on the Internet. The protesters also demanded Roskomnadzor to change its policies regarding the world wide web, however, those remained unchanged.
Pavel Durov insisted that Telegram would not comply with the demands of the Yarovaya laws. “FSB’s endeavor to obtain the access to private conversations in Telegram is an attempt to increase political influence by trampling on people’s right laid out in the constitution,” — emphasized Durov. The issue of privacy is predominant for Durov, who has a long history with Russian law enforcement. In fact, as Durov told the NY Times in 2014, the idea of a safe messenger for people seeking absolute privacy came to him as the officers of OMON (Russian National Guard) broke into his apartment.
Those police raids were the culmination of government pressure on VK that began in December of 2013 when Durov refused to hand over personal user data of the organizers of Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine. Later in the spring of that year, the authorities brutally prosecuted him for an alleged hit-and-run involving a policeman that Durov claims never happened. Despite the lack of evidence, Durov’s home and the headquarters of VK in St. Petersburg were raided by OMON. On the next day after the raids, an asset management company, belonging to Putin’s allies, bought 48% of Vkontakte Llc. At the time the independent media claimed that Durov became “persona non grata” for the authorities and VK grew too big to be unchecked (about 45 million users). As a result of the standoff with the government, Durov was forced to sell his remaining 12% of the company and emigrated from Russia saying, “Unfortunately it is impossible to run an internet-business in this country.”
Inability to withstand Putin’s bureaucratic leviathan became a major inspiration for Telegram. In the same interview, Durov describes how after OMON teams left his apartment, he immediately called his brother, Nikolai, who was his right hand in VK. “I realized I don’t have a safe means of communications with him,” he said, concluding, “That’s how Telegram started.” The primary feature of the messenger is the so-called secret chats. In addition to regular cloud-based messaging, the app includes an option for a message to be sent with client-to-client encryption. That means messages sent within a secret chat can be accessed only on two devices: the one that initiated the secret chat and the one that accepted it. Moreover, the messages sent by you in secret chats can be deleted at any time or self-destruct after a designated time. Additional features such as bots, channels, voice calls and most importantly stickers create an ambitious product unlike any of its competitors on the market.
On August 14th, Durov announced that Telegram has 50+% annual growth rate and over half a million daily signups. The app disrupted the markets of some counties, for instance in Iran it came to be the most popular messaging app in the country. Rapidly growing demand brought a great deal criticism, specifically alleged spread of child pornography and propaganda of terrorist groups, including ISIS, in the app. These were the basis for Tehran’s prosecutor to file criminal charges against Telegram in September. When asked to respond to the allegation, Durov wrote on Twitter “We are actively blocking terrorist and pornographic content in Iran. I think the real reasons are different.” Perhaps the real reason in Iran, as well as in Russia, is the reluctance to cooperate in undemocratic governmental surveillance. In post-Snowden communications industry, Durov remains one of the last entrepreneurs to care about our personal privacy and puts it before fear of terrorism. As for the future, Durov stays resolute: “Some users ask me how the charges in Iran and Russia will affect Telegram and me personally. The simple answer to this is: they won’t.”
“Once Celebrated in Russia, the Programmer Pavel Durov Chooses Exile.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Dec. 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/03/technology/once-celebrated-in-russia-programmer-pavel-durov-chooses-exile.html.
“Report: Iran Says It Files Charges against Telegram App CEO.” Business Insider, Associated Press 26 Sept. 2017, http://www.businessinsider.com/ap-report-iran-says-it-files-charges-against-telegram-app-ceo-2017-9.
“Russian federal agents have ordered Telegram to decipher all your correspondence.” Meduza, 27 Sept. 2017, meduza.io/en/news/2017/09/27/russian-federal-agents-have-ordered-telegram-to-decipher-all-your-correspondence.
“Russian Protesters Rally Against Internet Censorship.” RadioFreeEurope, RadioLiberty, 24 July 2017, http://www.rferl.org/a/russian-protesters-rally-against-internet-censorship/28633524.html.
“VKontakte’s Pavel Durov investigated by Russian police.” BBC News, BBC, 17 Apr. 2013, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-22186258.