Artists’ rendition of Roskomnadzor trying to block Telegram.
The problem isn’t even so much the cack-handed authoritarianism, though that’s bad enough. Russian web censor Roskomnadzor’s (RKN) blockage of Telegram several days ago will negatively affect the 15 million Russians who use the platform, which combines the functionality of Twitter (public blogs, channels) and WhatsApp (mobile comms). It was built by Pavel Durov, the libertarian developer behind Vkontakte who has assumed a cult-like status amongst the Russian technorati.
So here’s our first problem: Blocking Telegram isn’t cool. Now to be sure, liberal hipster kreakl iFags might be the scum of the Earth, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to piss them off for no reason. Part of the reason that the USSR collapsed was because it was really, really not cool. Smart people learn from others’ mistakes. Not so smart people learn from their own past mistakes. Really stupid people don’t learn at all.
Second problem: It’s not just the kreakls using Telegram. 15 million is a lot of people, and it includes all manner of entities – from the company that I do some consulting for here, which does its internal communications through Telegram, to large corporations, Kremlin-linked politologists and Kremlin insiders, state institutions, and media organizations such as RT (which, incidentally, continues to blithely broadcast on Telegram). Incidentally, since Telegram is so popular amongst the cognitive elites, not even the usual pro-Kremlin voices have bothered much with justifying it.
But the third and biggest problem is that RKN is too incompetent to actually… well, block the damn thing. As I write this, Telegram is still easily accessible to me, and to most other Russians, even without VPN. The reality is that banning a tech-savvy web service with hundreds of millions of dollars in its warchest is far harder than pogroming marginal nationalist and liberal webzines. Since the block, Telegram has been routing its clients to IP addresses belonging to Amazon and Google cloud services that were not yet on RKN’s blacklist. This has led to an amusing Whack-a-Mole game, as RKN has blocked some 20 million IPs, mostly associated with Amazon and Google cloud services. This has shut down parts of the Russian Internet – by some estimates up to 0.5% of it – mostly individuals, corporations, and services that have absolutely nothing to do with Telegram or even social media. This is hardly a major concern for RKN, since Russia has limited rule of law and the chances of any of them successfully suing it for lost earnings are slim to zero.
The official justification is that Telegram wouldn’t share information on its users with the FSB. As RKN’s director Alexander Zharov said in a perfect self-parody, “The attempts of some Telegram channels to get their users to download VPN is an attempt to frame themselves as an elite. As if they’re at the ball, and those who don’t have VPN, can only peer in from the window. But I think that it should be important for people to consider who they’re close to – with terrorists, or with normal people.”
But then again, the civilized approach in situations where communications companies refuse to budge on privacy – as practiced in, say, the US – is to hack them, instead of blocking them (or rather, 0.5% of your own Internet). Ironically, this serves to confirm Durov’s own very dim impressions of the human capital component of Russian siloviks: “In Russia, the FSB guys I’ve interacted with were not impressive. They were of middling ability; not really qualified. In the United States, the FBI is different. The ones who questioned me were competent. They spoke multiple languages. They had done their research, and knew exactly what questions to ask. They were of a high caliber. And I understood that America has so many resources dedicated to security that it is downright scary. Law enforcement in America is so much more efficient.”
But as Leonid Bershidsky points out, the real causes of the blockage might be a bit more mercenary.
Earlier this month, Herman Klimenko, Putin’s internet adviser, recommended that Telegram users switch to ICQ. That messaging service reached its peak at the turn of the century and was acquired by the Russian company Mail.ru in 2010, long after its fortunes waned. “I like ICQ,” Klimenko said. “It’s a fully functional messenger that is by no means inferior to Telegram from an ordinary user’s point of view.” Though Klimenko later said that he’d only meant it as an example, Putin’s press secretary Dmitri Peskov announced that he was trying ICQ. Kremlin staffers, he said, would soon choose an alternative to Telegraph for their daily use.
A month ago, according to App Annie, ICQ was the tenth most downloaded social networking app in Russia. It is now in fifth place. Another Mail.ru-owned messenger, TamTam, was the 51st most downloaded app in the category a month ago. It stands at 11th place. Regardless of whether Telegram is actually accessible to Russians, Mail.ru is benefiting from the government’s move.
Mail.ru is controlled by Megafon, a cellular operator which, in turn, is controlled by Alisher Usmanov, one of Russia’s richest men and a strong Putin loyalist. Vkontakte, which founder Pavel Durov exited after Usmanov acquired a share, is part of Mail.ru.
Telegram was the biggest competitor to Mail.ru’s messenger apps because many Russians prefer Russian internet services to U.S. ones. Russia is the only country where search and social networking aren’t dominated by Silicon Valley companies. And — perhaps coincidentally — Telegram stands as the only app banned for not turning over encryption keys.
That’s how Putin’s Russia operates: It’s never clear whether government moves are part of a conscious policy or a business undertaking. Sometimes, it’s a little of both. Lost somewhere in the process are the millions of ordinary users: Their interests aren’t even a consideration.
Third possible reason:
The thin-skinned goons in epaulettes at the FSB were too triggered by Durov’s publicity stunt in sending them the “keys” to Telegram’s office.
Meanwhile, perhaps the most frustrating thing of all – at least so far I’m concerned – is that it’s not Google or Facebook which are getting shut down, both of which are at this point mere adjuncts to the NSA and agents of a hostile foreign power. It’s not Apple that’s getting kicked out of Russia, which can be closed down by merely enforcing Russia’s laws against propaganda of homosexuality. It’s not Signal or Tor that are getting blocked, both of which are almost certainly CIA tools. In a sense, the Kremlin’s behavior is much sicker than that of China or Iran, which despite their lack of regard for free speech are at least safeguarding their elites from American surveillance and protecting their culture from Western cultural subversion.
No, of course it is Telegram that is getting blocked – the strongest Russian IT brand after Yandex and Kaspersky, but one which had the misfortune of standing in the way of a Kremlin-friendly billionaire’s profits, or which triggered the goons in epaulettes too much, or which said goons in epaulettes found too hard to hack, which enraged them so much that they banhammered 0.5% of the Russian Internet. Each explanation is more dismal than the last.
Incidentally, it also illustrates why confidence in the present Russian regime declines amongst youth, amongst Moscow residents, and especially amongst the cognitive elites (as indicated in numerous polls). It is embarrassing to be associated with it or to have to defend it, even amongst those who were or would otherwise be well-disposed to it.
PS. The one silver lining is that as Alexey Kovalev points out, such incompetence is basically the most succinct refutation of the Russiagate conspiracy theory:
Watching this debacle, many Russians are wondering: How is it possible that a country accused of waging sophisticated cyberwarfare campaigns around the world is so utterly incompetent in domestic tech affairs? There is now a theory circulating on Russian Facebook that the ban was deliberately botched so as to create exactly this kind of plausible deniability. Like most conspiracy theories, it’s far-fetched but illustrative: People would rather believe in sabotage than state-sponsored incompetence so gross that it threatens the country’s own IT backbone.
Or it would be. But problem is that he has 25,000 Twitter followers, whereas just Louise Mensch has an order of magnitude more. So even this makes zero impact.