Censorship

Russia Lifts Ban on Telegram App

Two years of rule-flouting by elites and ordinary citizens show the unsustainability of top-down prohibition.

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Russia's internet watchdog Roskomnadzor announced Thursday that it was finally lifting its two-year-old ban on the popular messaging app Telegram. The app's use of end-to-end encryption has made it a favorite among dissident groups of all stripes in authoritarian countries, and an optimal target for government censorship. 

Roskomnadzor began blocking Telegram in April 2018, after the company refused to comply with a Russian court order to provide encryption keys to access user data. Telegram was found in violation of anti-terrorism laws, which demanded that messaging apps let the government bypass its privacy protections. The Russian government claimed that because encryption keys do not contain personal information, privacy is not at stake.

Now Roskomnadzor has reversed course, explaining that Telegram had agreed to take a sufficient stance against criminal activity on the messaging platform. Telegram did not grant the Russian government access to encryption keys, but it reached a deal with the authorities on how to tackle "extremist" material. According to Roskomnadzor, Telegram now removes around 1,300 pieces of terrorist content a week.

The government's ban on Telegram was ineffective: Russians could easily evade it by using a Virtual Private Network to change their IP addressed. It was also unpopular:: Thousands rallied in Moscow in support of the app. Even during the ban, it was a key tool used by anti-government protesters.

It was also, for that matter, widely used by official Russian institutions. The government's virus response center and Communications Ministry both relied on Telegram to distribute information. In 2019, a government spokesperson went so far as to claim the app was "not banned," noting that a network of over 150 universities uses the platform. A motion to end government censorship of the messaging service was filed by lawmakers on the grounds that Telegram was an "essential service."

Russia's two-year Telegram moratorium shows that prohibition can't hamper demand for a service. When even government institutions flout the rules, you know a ban isn't sustainable.

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