Russia has unblocked Telegram, ending a largely ineffective two-year ban aimed at forcing the messaging app to comply with Moscow’s secret services.
Roskomnadzor, the country’s internet censor, announced on Thursday that it would lift the ban after Telegram’s Russia-born founder Pavel Durov said it had improved its efforts to moderate and remove “extremist propaganda”.
The move is a rare climbdown amid the Kremlin’s increasing attempts to bring online dissent to heel and increase its already broad surveillance powers. It also reflected an admission of the limits of those powers to stop Telegram, which remained widely available and popular even among Kremlin-linked figures themselves.
“Turns out Telegram was blocked this entire time,” Margarita Simonyan, editor of government-funded TV channel RT and state news agency Rossiya Segodnya, wrote on the app. “It didn’t really stop anyone, but this calms things down a bit.”
Telegram’s easy-to-use, customisable interface and focus on privacy has made it beloved of 400m users around the world, ranging from cryptocurrency enthusiasts and protesters in Hong Kong and Iran to jihadis and the far-right.
Roskomnadzor blocked Telegram in 2018 after Mr Durov refused to give the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, access to its encrypted “secret chats”, which it claimed were used by terrorists. Western governments and independent researchers have also criticised Telegram for being slow to weed out hate and terror groups.
Those efforts, however, were largely fruitless. Though Roskomnadzor took more than 16m IP addresses offline — including its own website — Telegram actually increased its user base in the country from 10m to 30m.
Russian officials, including Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, remained active on the app despite the ban. Government agencies used it for messaging on the coronavirus pandemic and to co-ordinate efforts to repatriate Russians stranded abroad because of flight restrictions.
“There is a court ruling, and actions to block [the app] were based on it. But you're right, it's true, the situation de facto is different,” Mr Peskov told reporters in April.
Roskomnadzor moved to lift the ban after lawmakers introduced a bill to unblock Telegram earlier this month. Mr Durov responded by saying that “fighting terrorism and the right to private correspondence are not mutually exclusive” and argued that making the app “more convenient” for Russians “would have a positive effect on innovation and national security”.
Russian news agency Interfax cited an anonymous “source in Russia’s power structures” who said that Telegram had not given the intelligence services decryption codes to its secret chats but had co-operated on specific terrorism and extremism-related requests.
The source also claimed that Russia now had additional antiterrorism powers thanks to a plan for a “sovereign internet”, approved last year, that centralises filtration and blocking powers in the hands of Russian censors.
Telegram claimed that handing over decryption keys was impossible because regular chats were divided between the users and held on cloud servers, while its “secret chats” changed the encryption every few minutes and automatically deleted data without storing it.
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