The Russian government is waging war on the private messaging app Telegram, and there is already some collateral damage. Telegram was banned in the country recently after failing to turn over its encryption keys as ordered by the courts. Russia is attempting to enforce the ban in any possible way, but it’s just causing a mess for internet users in general, not just those on Telegram.
Telegram was founded in Russia in 2013, but is currently based in the UK. It’s similar to apps like WhatsApp and Signal. It supports encrypted communication between parties, which makes it difficult or impossible for government agencies to listen in. A surveillance law passed in Russia back in 2016 was framed as a measure to combat terrorism, but it essentially granted the government access to all electronic communications. Messaging providers like Telegram are no longer permitted to use encryption that the government can’t crack.
Russian agencies probably went after Telegram because it’s one of the most popular messaging services in Russia, and it was founded there. Telegram knew the ban was coming when it refused to hand over the keys, so it moved its operations to servers on Amazon and Google IP addresses. Today, Russia has reportedly blocked 2 million IPs in Amazon’s cloud and another million over Google’s way.
All this, and Telegram reportedly still works for most users. Other services are not working well, though. There are many other services hosting content on these servers, which are no longer accessible in Russia. For example, Russian users are complaining the group management service Trello and the game GuildWars 2 are both down.
Since it’s proving harder than expected to block access to Telegram’s servers, Russian regulators are going after sources of the app. Both Apple and Google have been contacted with demands they remove Telegram from the Russian version of their app stores. Even third-parties that host the app are getting similar notices. APK Mirror, which mirrors free Android app APKs from many developers, was told to block access to Telegram APKs in Russia.
Even if Russia’s scorched Earth approach succeeds in blocking access to Telegram, users could just fire up VPNs to connect. Russia also frowns on VPN usage, but that’s even harder to stop. Telegram has 200 million monthly active users, and about 14 million of them are in Russia. They’re not all going to switch to the government-approved alternative TamTam, owned by Putin ally Alisher Usmanov. That definitely sounds like a trap.