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Russia’s Internet War and its Collateral Damage

The Russian Government Versus Telegram Messaging Service

Last weekend, I attempted to buy new sneakers online for my 5-year-old, but Amazon’s website was down. My husband wanted to look up traffic updates on Google, but Google Search was down. I tried to check in online for my Monday morning flight, but the airline’s website was down.

Tanya Lokshina’s own paper plane for Internet freedom. Moscow, April 22, 2018.

Welcome to Moscow, the capital of the Russian Federation, where authorities are blocking millions of IP addresses. It’s part of their war on Telegram, an Internet-based messenger, for the company’s refusal to provide its encryption keys to security services.

Russia’s state media and communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, known as RKN, obtained a court order on April 13 to shut down Telegram, following RKN’s year-long battle with the company, which has close to 10 million users in Russia and some 200 million worldwide. The court ruling is based on the problematic 2016 counter-terrorism legislative amendments requiring internet companies to hand over decoding information to the government.

Because of its end-to-end encryption, Telegram can’t provide decoding information to security services even if it wanted to. Nonetheless, the ban entered into force on April 16, with RKN blocking over 16 million IP addresses in the first 24 hours. As numerous Google services started collapsing over the past few days, RKN confirmed they were behind it and were aiming to stop Google from enabling Telegram’s operations. Yet there is nothing in the court order that speaks to RKN’s entitlement to disrupt Russian residents’ access to other perfectly lawful, routine online services.

Life’s gone haywire for Russian internet users. Friends and strangers told me they couldn’t look up train schedules or buy tickets for travel or to a show. Some lost access to their Google Drives and couldn’t retrieve contact lists. X-boxes froze. Music playlists and iPhone games stopped working. Some wire transfers couldn’t be accomplished. Some insurance policies couldn’t be purchased. Some banks even experienced problems with cash machines. A popular groceries franchise couldn’t process discount cards. Kids whined they couldn’t do their homework because online sources listed by their teachers were inaccessible. Parents couldn’t access some school and kindergarten listservs.

Business as usual is done and over with. Some of the most common internet-based services became collateral damage in RKN’s war and, for now at least, are not reliable – except Telegram itself, which has miraculously persevered. On Sunday morning, millions received a message from Telegram, calling all those who support internet freedom to throw paper airplanes at 7 p.m. Moscow time. My son enjoyed the experience tremendously – possibly more than he would have enjoyed the new sneakers.       

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