A court in Moscow ruled on Friday to block the popular messaging app Telegram in Russia, after the company refused to give state security services access to private conversations. The ruling follows a long-running battle between authorities and Telegram, which has a reputation for securely encrypted communications, as Moscow pushes to increase surveillance of internet activities.
The Roskomnadzor telecoms watchdog, which brought the case, had earlier demanded the service be blocked as soon as the verdict was announced. Telegram was found to have breached a law that requires social media sites that use encoding to give the key to security services to decode messages.
Telegram Loses Free Expression Battle to Russian Authorities https://t.co/NjOoTNtnYz
— Human Rights Watch (@hrw) April 13, 2018
The app’s maverick creator Pavel Durov wrote on social media that “Privacy is not for sale, and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed.” Dubbed Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg, Durov has amassed a fortune of $1.7 billion (1.4 billion euros) at 33, according to Forbes magazine. He banned lawyers representing Telegram from attending the court hearing so as not to legitimise the case.
But Pavel Chikov, who leads a group of human rights lawyers representing the app, said the case had proved the efficacy of the service. That authorities had brought the case showed that “Telegram is by far the safest messenger,” he said in comments published on the platform.
The authorities also pushed “hundreds of thousands of Russian users to study proxies and VPNs” in an attempt to circumnavigate a potential ban, he said. Both Chikov and Durov have previously said any ban would be impossible to enforce.
Durov, who left Russia in 2014 and is now based in Dubai, has long said he will reject any attempt by the country security’s services to gain backdoor access to the app. He previously refused to give security services the personal data of pro-European Ukrainian activists who were using the popular Russian VKontakte social media site he set up in 2006 and has now sold.
‘Consensus Not Reached’
Telegram, a free application that lets people exchange messages, stickers, photos and videos in groups of up to 5,000 people, has attracted more than 200 million users since its launch by Durov and his brother Nikolai in 2013.
Telegram is especially popular among political activists of all stripes, and is used by the Kremlin to communicate with journalists, but has also been used by jihadists.
In September 2017 the FSB security service demanded encryption keys, Durov said, prompting a formal complaint when the request was rejected. Durov wrote last year that the FSB’s demands are “technically impossible to carry out” and violate the Russian Constitution which entitles citizens to privacy of correspondence.
After the ruling, he told Russian users that Telegram had built-in systems to get round the blockage but that access without a VPN could not be guaranteed.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, whose daily conference call with journalists is organised via Telegram, said that blocking the service “was not the aim in itself. No one planned to ban anything.”
The court complied with legislation that “requires providing certain data to certain Russian agencies,” he said. The Kremlin spokesman added taht Telegram was given an opportunity to hand over the data “but unfortunately such consensus was not reached”.
Roskomnadzor had threatened to ban the app in June last year for failing to join its official register, which requires companies to provide the FSB with information on user interactions. Although Telegram later registered, it stopped short of agreeing to the regulator’s data storage demands.
From this year, companies on the register must also store all the data of Russian users inside the country, according to controversial anti-terror legislation passed in 2016 which was decried by internet companies and the opposition.
Amnesty International rights group ahead of the verdict condemned what it called the “the latest in a series of attacks on online freedom of expression in the country.”
Opposition politician Alexei Navalny said Russia should be grateful to Durov but instead “the idiots in the Kremlin see such a person as the enemy.” Navalny urged supporters to “protest against this idiocy” at demonstrations he had already called for May 5, ahead of Putin’s inauguration for a fourth Kremlin term.
Russia has acted to curb Internet freedoms as social media has become the main way to organise demonstrations.