Russian authorities have begun implementing their attempt to block the encrypted messaging app Telegram across the country. And the result has been a complete disaster, as so many people predicted it would be.
Russia’s beef with Telegram
As we have previously reported, the Roskomnadzor, Russia’s media regulator, has been pursuing Telegram to hand over the encryption keys to their service in line with a draconian new law which was recently signed into effect by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Telegram has been challenging this demand on the grounds that it is a breach of the right of Russian people to privacy of correspondence. They have also tried to explain that the way their app is designed means that not even they have access to the encryption keys used by the service.
But such technicalities have obviously not put the Roskomnadzor off and after winning the case, they yesterday began to try and implement a full ban of Telegram across the country. The results have been little short of catastrophic.
Sweeping censorship sees countless sites blocked
Regular readers may recall that we reported earlier this month on Russian efforts to block another online communication tool known as Zello. To do this, it quickly became clear that they would have to block millions of IP Addresses, but this didn’t seem to put them off in any way.
It seems the same has been true with Telegram as well. The Roskomnadzor has instructed Russian ISPs to block at least 4 million IP Address in an attempt to stop Russians from accessing the service. One report [in Russian] even puts the figure as high as 16 million IP Addresses blocked so far.
But as with Zello, Telegram shares many of these IP Addresses with a whole host of other websites. They have recently moved over to Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud servers as part of their strategy to get around the long-anticipated ban.
So, when these IP Addresses are blocked, all of the sites that use them become unavailable. It is, therefore, no surprise that multiple Russian’s have been reporting difficulty accessing countless different sites.
Those affected include retailers, other online messaging services such as Viber, some online games including Guild Wars and World of Warships. Even the Russian language social media network Odnoklassniki has been caught up, with users reporting that they cannot make new posts or access many older ones.
One glaring omission in the Russian IP Address blocks
Ironically, one online service which continues to be available in Russia is… Telegram.
Even though Telegram says that just 7% of their users are from Russia, their founder, Pavel Durov is Russian and has said that maintaining access in his home country is important to him on a personal level.
As a result, the service has shifted over to shared servers and, according to Russian technology site Akket.com, added a new feature which allows users in Russia to switch IP Addresses when using the service.
Durov has also been offering bitcoin funding to people who are running VPNs that work in Russia and has said he is willing to donate millions of dollars to support the VPN industry in Russia.
Russia does currently have a VPN ban in place too, but as we recently reported, this has had little effect and most VPN services remain accessible in Russia.
VPNs have long been an effective way for Russian citizens to get around the growing online censorship of the Putin regime and to not only access online content without restrictions but also have the opportunity to express their views online anonymously and without fear of reprisals.
With Russian authorities seemingly now adopting a scattergun approach and being willing to blocking large swathes of the internet in an attempt to block a single site, VPNs have never been more important for Russian internet users.
Where do we go from here?
Neither side appears to be willing to back down at the moment, with Telegram continuing its efforts to remain online in Russia while the Roskomnadzor continues to block more IP Addresses and at the same time denying its actions are having any knock-on effects.
Indeed, the Russian regulator appears to be trying to expand its online controls with reports that Facebook could be the next popular online service to be investigated to see if it is complying with the new requirements to store all data about Russian citizens in Russia.
The standoff looks likely to continue for the time being at least, with the only losers being Russian internet users and those businesses who are falling victims to the Roskomnadzor sweeping online censorship despite doing nothing wrong.
Of course, these can still be accessed using a VPN too and we would recommend all internet users in Russia sign up for a VPN service such as IPVanish sooner rather than later.