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Russia’s Telegram ban is a big, convoluted mess

If you want to know the reason I’m not on WhatsApp with its other 1.5 billion users, the answer is Telegram. To people unfamiliar with it, I like to describe Telegram as simply WhatsApp without any of the icky data sharing with Facebook. It has been my favorite, most reliable messaging client, and its platform-agnostic design means I can access my messages across iPhones, Android devices, and desktop browsers. I’m a big fan of Telegram, which is part of why its present ban in its native Russia troubles me.

Telegram got its start, and its initial funding, under the premise of providing a messaging tool that was shielded from the inquisitive glare of Russian spy agencies. Its effectiveness in pursuing that original goal has been demonstrated this month with the ruling by a Russian court that Telegram should be banned in the country, owing to the app’s makers refusing to hand over encryption keys to the Russian government.

Now, granted, Telegram has earned unwanted notoriety for being a favored dissemination method for terrorist propaganda and a tool for organizing terrorist acts, but that’s the fate that awaits any privacy-focused, end-to-end encrypted messaging service. Russia’s ban seems to be a transparent effort to gain control and oversight of the messaging habits of ordinary Russians.

While the court ruling was handed down on Friday, implementation of the ban didn’t commence until Monday, when the various local ISPs started blocking Telegram through the clumsy method of, um, blocking 15.8 million IPs on Amazon and Google’s cloud platforms. Telegram routes traffic through those US cloud services to circumvent Russian state interference — but so do many other Russian businesses, and since the block isn’t smart enough to isolate Telegram, it’s led to a heap of trouble and malfunctions for online banking and retail services across the country. The large scale of this “collateral damage” provides an apt illustration of the importance Russia places on pushing Telegram to either comply with its demands or perish.

In related measures, Russia’s telecommunications regulator has asked Apple and Google to pull Telegram from their app stores, requested that popular sideloading site APK Mirror also cease serving Telegram (which would be the first alternative for Android users, should Google comply and pull Telegram from the Play Store), and even urged VPN providers to prevent Telegram messages from getting through.

Alongside the block, Russian state-backed media has served up scare stories like “5 acts of terrorism organized on Telegram” and the recommendation to switch to TamTam as a solid Telegram alternative. Unsurprisingly, TamTam is no such thing. It’s a poor Telegram clone operated by Mail.ru, which is owned by Alisher Usmanov, who in turn has been named a “Putin crony” by US senators. Another amusing side note is that TamTam itself went down for a while yesterday due to the brute-force Telegram block, joining a couple of major banks, Mastercard’s 3D Secure feature, and some retail chains in malfunctioning.

To get a better idea of Telegram’s use in Russia, the government’s motivations in blocking it, and the full effect of the present ban, I asked two Russian friends for their thoughts.

How important is Telegram in Russia? Do you feel like you have a viable alternative to use, such as WhatsApp, which is also encrypted?

Anton Nekhaenko: Telegram is very important to certain narrow margins of society. Russian society is a huge sea of Viber, with puddles of WhatsApp here and there, and Telegram is for the small affluent margin. It’s a drop in a bucket.

To me, Telegram is as important as WhatsApp, but in a different way. One-on-one communications are not the bulk of stuff I do on Telegram. It’s primarily channels. Channels are really the whole problem that the government is currently having with Telegram. Not some shady terrorist chats.

In Russia, in particular, there are a lot of channels that deliver current news and analysis anonymously. A lot of channels with dirt on politicians and officials, some of it is unconfirmed, of course, but it’s out there. Whole newspaper articles get written on the basis of that dirt. People in power then maybe participate in that by heaping dirt on their opponents, but they don’t like it when it happens to them.

Mary Glazkova: There are 12 million users, and it feels like most of them are in Moscow. Though there are WhatsApp and Viber, most people are sticking with Telegram and trying to use proxy and VPN now. The user geography of Telegram is showing more visitors from the UK, USA, France, and other EU countries — which are actually Russians trying to avoid the ban. Telegram is used for both business and personal. Now, those who decided to save $50–120 on VPNs are using other messengers. I can say FB Messenger is one of the top to replace Telegram.

How much do you rely on Telegram? How did you experience the block, and have you figured out a way to evade it yet?

AN: Other than yourself and a few other friends, I don’t use it for messaging. I’m on a few groups where I discuss technology with friends. I follow a few channels about programming, a few about technology in general, a couple of political ones, and a few channels with really saucy memes. Young people are yearning for non-algorithmic shit, which Telegram has nailed with its channels and memes.

I’m using a proxy server that a friend, who’s been using it for work, just opened up for the rest of us in a Telegram tech group. A couple of days before the court ruling, a majority of Russian Telegram channels started reblogging and serving up instructions on how to set up proxies and VPN workarounds. Not just tech channels, general-interest channels, too. As of now, I’m using the proxy, but Telegram seems to still be working for a lot of people even without it. The ISP block has caused Viber calls to go down, though, which is a very big deal in Russia.

MG: The block took effect yesterday, and my friends told me they experienced troubles in accessing Gmail and some online stores. A lot of people are using NordVPN and Betterinternet to access Telegram. People not only tend to trust the app (I’m not sure about how many are really keen on privacy), but Telegram is also very simple, fast, and has a nice UI. (It has stickers. People love stickers!)

You’re based in Moscow. What are the local and national media telling you about the ban? Is it big news in the country?

AN: That’s the problem. I don’t follow the local media news organizations. A few that I do follow, they mention it, and they keep updating, and it’s on Twitter, too. But as for big government media, I don’t follow that. Government media is all toxic propaganda bullshit about Ukraine, Syria, and so on. They just spin whatever the government wants them to spin. Why would I want to open my brain to that?

MG: Yes, all top-tier newspapers covered the issue. Actually, I received the message in Telegram from one of the Telegram channels. All media have telegram channels. Had. Now they don’t post.

Do a lot of young Russians get their news via Telegram channels like this?

AN: A lot of people in my circle don’t follow national news outlets. They just tweet the news at each other. They are marginalized in the news agenda, so to speak. What they want to speak about and learn about is on YouTube, on Twitter, on Telegram, but it’s not on TV. There are a few independent newspapers, whose websites are more popular than the printed edition.

Telegram channels feel more personal, a saucier take on the same current events as the newspapers discuss. And that’s what people want, I guess. Young Russians are more interested in social gossip like which rapper slept with which model rather than news and politics. Politics is too remote, they don’t feel like there’s a legitimate political process to engage with. Memes are the only thing worth engaging with because it’s shits and giggles.

MG: In Moscow, yes, I guess. For instance, there is a channel called Merciless PR Person. It has almost 37,000 followers, and it covers PR scandals, different stories about top companies’ PR problems, and discusses PR people in a hilarious way. I don’t read Russian media sites and, of course, I don’t buy newspapers here, but Telegram channels were very useful.

Is that sort of content something you can’t get in regular, presumably state-controlled media?

AN: State-controlled media have people who are on top of everything happening in the meme world, but whenever they try to engage with it, it turns out totally lame. And who wants lame? They are of no relevance to the younger generation.

MG: Exactly.

Do you think this ban will last?

AN: I honestly don’t know. This ban has obviously inconvenienced a lot of people. But when something in Russia inconveniences ordinary people, it’s of no matter to people in power at all. People of Putin’s generation would rather the internet did not exist at all. So long as it only troubles ordinary people, the ban will continue.

MG: I would say yes. It’s because of the courts. You could file an appeal, I guess, but that takes forever for anything to happen.

AN: My mom’s take: “Thank God repressions are handled by such incompetent idiots. My family remembers full well how it was when they were carried out by professionals.”

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