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Russia Bans Telegram After Company Refuses to Surrender Encryption Keys

Telegram's free instant messaging app has attracted about 100 million users since its launch in 2013
AFP/File CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT

After a hearing on Friday that lasted only 18 minutes, a court in Moscow gave Russia’s Roskomnadzor agency the authority to ban the popular secure messaging platform Telegram. The company had refused to surrender its encryption keys to Russia’s FSB security service, as demanded by a 2016 counterterrorism law.

The hearing was so short because Telegram, having already lost a lawsuit against the FSB, decided not to send its lawyers to Friday’s court session. Telegram has argued that it does not have a universal encryption key to decode all user messages, and thus could not give the Russian government what it demands, even if it wanted to comply.

Telegram founder Pavel Durov, a Russian expatriate, does not sound inclined to give Moscow or any other government backdoor access to his platform, even if it were possible.

“The power that local governments have over IT corporations is based on money,” Durov mused in a public Telegram post on Friday. “At any given moment, a government can crash their stocks by threatening to block revenue streams from its markets and thus force these companies to do strange things (remember how last year Apple moved iCloud servers to China).”

“At Telegram, we have the luxury of not caring about revenue streams or ad sales,” he declared. “Privacy is not for sale, and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed.”

Security agencies around the world have expressed concern at Telegram’s popularity with terrorists and criminals, who can find many uses for easy access to a secure global messaging system. As it happens, Telegram is also quite popular with officials of the Russian government, including the Kremlin.

There is speculation the government could be slow to block Telegram for this reason, although the judge ordered an immediate ban, lasting until the company submits to the FSB’s demands. Agencies such as the Russian Foreign Ministry have indicated they will move to platforms other than Telegram.

Reuters cites Russian media reports that Roskomnadzor promptly added Telegram to its register of banned websites, but was vague about precisely when service could be interrupted.

Durov has suggested Telegram users will find ways around a ban. Some Russian officials think so too, which means the government might hesitate to declare an official ban to avoid the embarrassment of Telegram users merrily messaging away despite their best efforts.

“Many Telegram users have already adopted different messengers, and those who want to stay with this product know a lot of ways to get around the ban and continue using the services they are used to,” Russian Deputy Communications Minister Alexei Volin conceded.

Telegram lawyer Pavel Chikov said the court’s decision should serve as a warning to tech firms about doing business in Russia, where “the court system is devoted to serving the interests of the authorities.”

The timing of the Russian court decision is noteworthy, as Telegram is about to begin offering its own cryptocurrency, similar to Bitcoin.

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