Telegram, popular messaging app, has been making the rounds following a highly publicized ban of the service in Russia. The official explanation for the blockade of the messaging service is that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) is claiming that the application can potentially be used to coordinate and plan acts of terrorism.
In an effort to counteract this, the FSB requested access to view encrypted messages sent using the service – something Telegram has refused to allow.
This all comes following a 4 April deadline implemented by the FSB, which had asked Telegram to hand over decryption keys prior to this date. Telegram’s rise to popularity has partly been due to the service’s encrypted messages, which allow users to send messages privately, without the risk of having any prying eyes view them.
In Russia, Telegram has quickly become a popular alternative for group conversations, and even acts as an unofficial source of information.
However, access to the requested decryption keys would allow the FSB to view any of the messages sent using the service. Some are worried that would give the FSB the means to spy on Russian citizens, and even potentially identify those expressing dissatisfaction with the current Russian government.
It is widely speculated that this, at least in part, was what prompted Telegram to withhold the decryption keys past the 4 April deadline.
As Telegram failed to provide the communications watchdog with the keys, a hearing was scheduled for 13 April, at which a court would examine the issue. Notably, the hearing was scheduled a mere 24 hours before it took place, and the request to block Telegram in Russia was granted after only 18 minutes of consideration by the court.
The issue may have been exacerbated by the fact that Telegram’s lawyers did not attend the court hearing, in an act of protest.
The court ruling did not go into effect until 16 April, however, when local internet service providers in Russia initiated their ban of Telegram through the somewhat blunt effort of blocking nearly 16 million IP addresses on Google and Amazon cloud platforms.
Whilst this was done to prevent Telegram from routing traffic through the aforementioned United States-based cloud service in efforts to bypass the Russian ban, the block did not manage to isolate Telegram accounts.
This led to a lapse in retail services and online banking sites in Russia that use similar routing methods through the affected platforms.
Russia’s telecommunications regulator, Roskomnadzor, has also urged both Google and Apple to remove the Telegram application from Google Play and the App Store, respectively.
Russia seems to be serious in either making Telegram comply with its demands or drive the application out of the country, as Russia has reportedly urged VPN (Virtual Private Network) providers to assist them in preventing Telegram messages from getting through to Russian users.
It is currently unclear how effective the ban will be since Russian citizens can still access the service using VPNs or proxy services.
However, Russia is not entirely in the wrong. Although it would seem that the Russian efforts to acquire decryption keys mainly have got to do with enabling more extensive oversight of what the general Russian public is discussing on the application, the application is also admittedly popular among terrorist groups.
This has mainly got to do with the fact that the service in end-to-end encrypted and privacy-centered – rendering it ideal for individuals looking to hide their correspondence.
On the other hand, these developments might spell trouble for Telegram. Telegram has recently raised a $1.7 billion in the company so-called Initial Coin Offering (ICO).
This ICO would see Telegram join the growing number of companies that have released a cryptocurrency token, following the notable rise in the price of Bitcoin and its ilk during the last year.
Telegram is also planning the construction of a blockchain – the Telegram Open Network – which will reportedly allow for file-sharing, decentralized privacy, and faster payments.
Telegram’s own tokens are set to be called ”Grams”, and the second private funding round for the tokens closed just weeks before the Russian ban was levied on the company. Both previous funding rounds for the token have been private – and it is now unclear whether Telegram will settle for the already record-breaking amount raised, or if it will pursue a public ICO.
Nonetheless, despite how any potential ICO from Telegram is affected by the ban, it has already attracted sizable investments from the funding rounds, giving Telegram a respectable war chest if the feud with Russian regulators drags on.
Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov fled Russia in 2014 giving some insight into his standpoint when it comes to Russian authorities. It is also unlikely that Russia will soften its stance on the issue, as Russian president Vladimir Putin heads into his latest six-year term reinvigorated by recent election results. It also seems equally unlikely that Durov will back down, and he recently stated that he and Telegram believes that privacy is not for sale.
Telegram is not the first application to face difficulties from Russian regulators. The social networking site LinkedIn was blocked in Russia in November of 2016 and has had problems being used in Russia ever since.
This was also due to a decision from Roskomnadzor, Russia’s telecommunications regulator, who requested that LinkedIn would store Russian citizens’ data on servers located in Russia
This came following sweeping reforms on how Russia handles internet sites and internet security within the country. This is not entirely unlike the more recent troubles experienced by Telegram, and the Russian telecommunications authority not only completely removed access to the LinkedIn website – it also ordered different app stores to remove all the LinkedIn apps.
However, it is unclear how this situation will be resolved. There has been growing public support for Telegram in Russia, and citizens recently took to throwing colored paper airplanes (the logo of Telegram is a paper airplane) out of the windows of buildings in Moscow.
At the same time, it seems increasingly unlikely that neither Russian authorities nor Telegram will yield. It remains to be seen how the situation unfolds.