Any entity operating an encrypted messaging service in Russia needs to register with local authorities. They must also hand over their encryption keys when requested to do so, so that users can be monitored.
Messaging giant Telegram refused to give in to Russian pressure. Founder Pavel Durov said that he would not compromise the privacy of Telegram’s 200m monthly users, despite losing a lawsuit against the Federal Security Service which compelled him to do so. In response, telecoms watchdog Roscomnadzor filed a lawsuit to degrade Telegram via web-blocking.
After a Moscow court gave the go-ahead for Telegram to be banned in Russia last month, chaos broke out. ISPs around the country tried to block the service, which was using Amazon and Google to provide connectivity. Millions of IP addresses belonging to both companies were blocked and countless other companies and individuals had their services blocked too.
But despite the Russian carpet-bombing of Telegram, the service steadfastly remained online. People had problems accessing the service at times, of course, but their determination coupled with that of Telegram and other facilitators largely kept communications flowing.
Part of the huge counter-offensive was mounted by various VPN and anonymizer services that allowed people to bypass ISP blocks. However, they too have found themselves in trouble, with Russian authorities blocking them for facilitating access to Telegram. In an announcement Thursday, the telecoms watchdog revealed the scale of the crackdown.
Deputy Head of Roskomnadzor told TASS that dozens of VPNs and similar services had been blocked while hinting at yet more to come.
“Fifty for the time being,” Subbotin said.
With VPN providers taking a hit on behalf of Telegram, there could be yet more chaos looming on the horizon. It’s feared that other encrypted services, which have also failed to hand over their keys to the FSB, could be targeted next.
Ministry of Communications chief Nikolai Nikiforov told reporters this week that if Viber doesn’t fall into line, it could suffer the same fate as Telegram.
“This is a matter for the Federal Security Service, because the authority with regard to such specific issues in the execution of the order for the provision of encryption keys is the authority of the FSB,” Nikiforov said.
“If they have problems with the provision of encryption keys, they can also apply to the court and obtain a similar court decision,” the minister said, responding to questions about the Japanese-owned, Luxembourg-based communications app.
With plenty of chaos apparent online, there are also reports of problems from within Roscomnadzor itself. For the past several days, rumors have been circulating in Russian media that Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov has resigned, perhaps in response to the huge over-blocking that took place when Telegram was targeted.
When questioned by reporters this week, Ministry of Communications chief Nikolai Nikiforov refused to provide any further information, stating that such a matter would be for the prime minister to handle.
“I would not like to comment on this. If the chairman of the government takes this decision, I recall that the heads of services are appointed by the decision of the prime minister and personnel decisions are never commented on,” he said.
Whether Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev will make a statement is yet to be seen, but this week his office has been dealing with a blocking – or rather unblocking – controversy of its own.
In a public post on Facebook May 1, Duma deputy Natalya Kostenko revealed that she was having problems due to the Telegram blockades.
“Dear friends, do not write to me on Telegram, I’m not getting your messages. Use other channels to contact me,” Kostenko wrote.
In response, Dmitry Medvedev’s press secretary, Natalia Timakova, told her colleague to circumvent the blockade so that she could access Telegram once again.
“Use a VPN! It’s simple. And it works almost all the time,” Timakov wrote.
Until those get blocked too, of course…..