Why is the Telegram app blocked in Russia and Iran?

Several countries are trying to block Telegram for users. Why is the service forbidden?

Both Iran and Russia have recently set up Telegram blockades. In Russia, the chat app across the country banned in Iran applies the ban being only for government agencies and administrators.

Telegram is a popular app for sending messages. The service was released in 2013, and now the app counts 200 million users worldwide. That made founder Pavel Durov late March announced.

One of the spearheads of Telegram is privacy. “Unlike other popular apps, Telegram does not have to account to shareholders or advertisers,” he wrote. “We do not do business with advertising agencies or governments, and we have never shared one byte of user data with third parties.”

Telegram supports end-to-end encryption. This means that information is encrypted in a way so that the content is only visible to the recipient.

Decryption key

Governments of different countries have difficulty with that and want security services to gain more access. The Russian telecom watchdog Roskomnadzor, therefore, asked the court in Moscow to ban the app for users in the country. The judge went along with that.

This happened when security services asked Telegram to provide a decryption key. With such a key, the services could read along in secure conversations. They like that access, because Telegram, for example, is an app that is often used by terrorists.

Not only can malevolent use Telegram to discuss undisturbed matters, but the platform is also used to recruit new members and spread propaganda. The Russian security service FSB said in 2017 “reliable information” to possess that shows that terrorists used Telegram to carry out an attack in St. Petersburg. Fifteen people died.

Privacy

Founder Durov has continued to stand firm and refused to provide a decryption key. According to him, such a key is in violation of the constitution, and it would not be technically feasible to build something like that into the app.

In addition to Russia, there is also a national blockade in Iran. Telegram is used in the country by 40 million people, about half the population. Not only citizens but also state media, politicians, and companies use Telegram.

For Iranian government agencies, the app would no longer be allowed since last week, reported Iranian media. The reason for this was given “to protect national security.” The account of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been closed.

In January, the app in Iran was also blocked for a short time, when there were protests against the government. The blockade did not have much success then, because many people continued to use Telegram via a detour. They did this, for example, through a VPN service, which allows users to mask their location.

Circumvention

The same thing now seems to happen in Russia. According to Durov, hardly any Russians have been active on Telegram since the ban. “We also use third-party cloud services to keep the service partially active for our users,” he writes on his Telegram channel.

“For us, it was a simple choice, we promised full privacy to our users, and we would rather stop than to violate our promise.” The Russian government is trying to block the bypassing the blockade again, but for the time being without much success.

Russia asked Apple and Google after switching on the blockade to get the Telegram app from the app stores. The tech giants did not listen to that yet. Apple also pulled the chat app short of the App Store earlier this year, because “inappropriate content was made available to users.” It was not clear what content it was.

Money

Founder Durov intends to take on the fight against the authorities. His main weapon in that battle is money to fund initiatives that can get around blockades.

“In order to support internet freedom in Russia and other countries, I started distributing bitcoins to individuals and companies offering proxies and VPN services,” he says. “I want to donate millions of dollars this year to this goal.”

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