(Moscow) – Russia’s blocking of the messaging service Telegram is unjustified and has worsened the government’s widespread assault on privacy and freedom of expression online, Human Rights Watch said today. Twenty independent human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, issued a statement on April 30, 2018, condemning the Russian authorities’ actions.
Russia should stop blocking Telegram, and internet companies should resist any orders by Russian authorities to facilitate the action, the groups said. The United Nations, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and other intergovernmental organizations should publicly challenge Russia’s actions in order to defend the rights to freedom of expression and privacy both online and-offline.
“Blocking millions of IP addresses in an effort to block Telegram is part of the Russian government’s attack on internet freedom,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This limits internet users’ access to information and leaves them vulnerable to surveillance by government and private actors.”
On April 13, Russia’s state media and communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, obtained a court ruling allowing it to block Telegram, which has more than 10 million users in Russia and more than 200 million worldwide. The court ruling is based on a 2016 law requiring internet companies to hand over encryption keys to the government. Telegram’s founder maintained it does not store user encryption keys, so cannot hand them over.
In the following days, Roskomnadzor ordered the blocking of almost 18 million Internet Protocol (IP) addresses owned by international internet companies, which Telegram had used to continue to operate in Russia.
The organizations described the mass disruption the IP address blocking has caused internet users. Search engines, map and traffic reporting services, airline booking services, online shopping, and many other online services legitimately operating in Russia have been affected.
Roskomnadzor had waged a battle against Telegram for the company’s failure to comply with a 2017 order to provide encryption keys to the Federal Security Services (FSB). The order was based on 2016 counterterrorism legislation. The law is one of dozens Russia’s parliament has adopted since 2012 that restrict free expression, allow for blocking of websites without a court order, regulate data storage, and ensure that a wealth of data, including confidential user information and the content of communications, can be made available to authorities, often without any judicial oversight.
“The Russian authorities’ efforts to control online communications invade users’ privacy and security and violate Russia’s international legal obligations,” Gorbunova said. “The government needs to end its attack on freedom of expression online.”