Russia’s drive to ban access to the popular messaging app Telegram could be proving a bigger headache than the Kremlin may have imagined.
In its zeal to shut down Telegram, which was founded by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov and his brother in 2013, millions of ordinary Russians, their businesses, and others have found themselves entangled in a cyber dragnet along with much bigger entities.
So far, 16 million IP addresses have been blocked by Russia’s state communications regulator Roskomnadzor. The Telegram app allows users to communicate via encrypted messages that cannot be read by others -- including government authorities.
To enforce the ban, Roskomnadzor has blocked millions of IP addresses belonging to servers operated by Google and Amazon, the two U.S.-based tech giants.
But why? In a bid to evade the ban, Telegram moved its data to Google- and Amazon-owned “cloud” servers shortly after a Russian court on April 13 ruled the messaging app should be blocked in Russia for failing to hand the keys to users’ data over to the Federal Security Service (FSB).
Roskomnadzor began implementing the court decision on April 16 by notifying Internet providers that they must “restrict access” to Telegram.
After Telegram had shifted its data to Amazon and Google, Roskomnadzor began banning IP addresses belonging to those two Internet giants.
More than 1.5 million IP addresses hosted by Google Cloud servers had been blocked by Roskomnadzor as of April 17, according to activists cited by Meduza.io. The number of blocked Amazon IP addresses was put at about 1 million by the same activists.
The decision to block the messaging app followed a months-long standoff between Telegram and the FSB, which demanded the encryption keys so it could access users' messages. Durov, who left Russia in 2014, refused to give the authorities access.
Among those impacted was Viber, another popular messaging app, that said on April 16 that some users in Russia were experiencing problems using the app to make calls. The company said: “These issues seem to come from connectivity problems to Amazon Web Services in Russia.”
And that seems to have been a recurring theme. Businesses in Russia with links either to Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud have experienced website outages. The online English-language school, Skyeng, said its students were unable to log in to courses on April 16, according to a posting on Vkontakte, Russia’s popular social-networking site.
Internet businesses in Russia were also hit inadvertently by Roskomnadzor’s move.
The Russian online flower-delivery site, Giveme.ru, said its site was blocked on April 16. It also noted in a Facebook posting that it uses an Amazon hosting site.
The Russian online courier service, Ptichka, said its website also was temporarily impacted on April 16. “As a result, almost six hours of service downtime,” said Vladimir Kobzev, an engineer at Ptichka.
Telegram has attracted more than 200 million users worldwide since it was launched in 2013.
Many lampooned Roskomnadzor’s decision on social media, saying the move to ban so many IP addresses had secondary repercussions, as it also blocked many legitimate web services.
As for the ban on Telegram, many users were able to evade it by switching to virtual private networks (VPNs), which, so far at least, seem immune to Roskomnadzor’s actions.
Clients of leading Internet providers in Russia -- Beeline, Megafon, Yota, MTS, and Tele2 -- said on April 16 that they were able to maintain access to Telegram by using VPNs.
Durov himself took to Telegram on April 17 to say VPNs and "other proxies" were essentially making the ban meaningless.
"Despite the ban, we haven’t seen a significant drop in user engagement so far, since Russians tend to bypass the ban with VPNs and proxies. We also have been relying on third-party cloud services to remain partly available for the rest of our users," he wrote.
Roskomnadzor chief Aleksandr Zharov on April 16 warned that law enforcement would take measures against “tools to avoid the blockage of Telegram.”
Sarkis Darbinyan, a lawyer and Internet access advocate, told Current Time TV, that VPNs may hold the key to internet freedom in Russia amid fears the Kremlin is seeking to close avenues for dissent as President Vladimir Putin heads into a new six-year term.
“The VPN security tool is already becoming vital not only for geeks, but for anyone who wants to stay online and feel free,” Darbinyan told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.