This morning, Moscow’s Tagansky District Court issued a ruling to block access to Telegram, a popular messaging service with close to ten million users in Russia, and close to 200 million worldwide, for failure to hand encryption keys over to Russia’s security services.
The ruling enforced July 2016 counterterrorism legislation, often referred to as the “Yarovaya law,” which requires internet companies operating in Russia to provide authorities with “information necessary for decoding” their users’ messages. In effect, the law requires these companies to act, at authorities’ request, as part of the government surveillance machine.
Authorities’ battle with Telegram lasted for more than a year, with Roskomnadzor, Russia’s state media watchdog, threatening repeatedly to block it. Last year, the authorities ordered Telegram to register as an “organizer of information dissemination.” This meant Telegram would have to comply with other restrictive legislation, such as the law that prohibited companies registered in Russia as “organizers of information dissemination” from allowing unidentified users. In 2017, Roskomnadzor blocked three online messaging apps for failure to provide information necessary to register with the Russian government. Under the very real threat of blocking, Telegram agreed to register, but reiterated that it would not share confidential user data with the authorities.
In what can only be described as a wholesale assault on privacy and free expression online, the Russian parliament in recent years has adopted a slew of laws regulating data storage, unjustifiably restricting users’ access to information, and ensuring that a wealth of data, including confidential user information and the content of communications, be made available to authorities, often without any judicial oversight.
Authorities repeatedly threatened to block Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter if they fail to comply with these laws. In 2016, authorities blocked LinkedIn for noncompliance with the data storage law.
Many wondered how the “Yarovaya law” would be enforced, considering that messaging services – including Telegram – increasingly do not keep copies of encryption keys for reasons of cybersecurity.
Today’s court decision answers that question: Russia is indeed forcing companies to weaken the security of their services, leaving users vulnerable not just to government surveillance (with very few legal safeguards to protect them), but also other risks, including unauthorized surveillance and data theft.
In his Twitter account, Pavel Durov, a Russian entrepreneur and Telegram’s CEO, said that Telegram “will stand for freedom and privacy.” That’s an important commitment as people all over the world rely on it to send billions of messages every day. But it looks like Telegram won’t get the chance to protect the freedom and privacy of those who’ve relied on it in Russia.