Russia Messaging App
Russia Messaging App

WASHINGTON - The Russian government is struggling to block messaging app Telegram, and its bid to cut access to the instant messenger platform is causing widespread disruption to an array of websites and online services in Russia that have nothing to do with Telegram.

For three weeks, Russian regulators have been floundering in their efforts to block the app after a court imposed a ban on Telegram April 13 for its refusal to hand the security agencies encryption keys enabling them access to users’ private messages.

Telegram’s defiant founder, Pavel Durov, a Russian entrepreneur in self-imposed exile, has boasted that the user count hasn’t suffered since the Kremlin sought to ban the app. Russian intelligence chiefs say they need access to Telegram messages sent by terrorists and criminals.

A man shouts whilst holding a portrait of messagin
A man shouts whilst holding a portrait of messaging app Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov designed as an icon, to protest against the blocking of the app in Russia, during a May Day rally in St. Petersburg, Russia, May 1, 2018.

While the censors’ efforts have not caused many problems for Telegram, they have resulted in access being blocked to a host of other websites and online services, intermittently affecting Russians' ability to buy via the internet everything from movie tickets to car insurance.

Widespread disruption

Access to some news sites also has been impaired, and users of Gmail say they have not been able to check their accounts. Online gamers also say they are encountering disruption.

Following the crackdown, owners of several different smart TV models have been unable to connect their sets to the Internet, and owners of fitness trackers and blood-pressure-monitors also have been experiencing problems, according to Mikhail Klimarev, director of the Society for Internet Protection. He says parents are complaining that GPS watches for tracking the location of their children have been failing.

One of the country’s most popular online car-sharing services, Delimobil, says its app has stopped displaying crucial maps thanks to the censorship. The flight search and ticketing service Kupibilet notified customers that “some ticketing systems are having problems.”

Russia’s Federal Service for the Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, known as Roskomnadzor, denies the outages are being caused by its decision to block 15.8 million IP addresses on Amazon and Google’s cloud platforms in its bid to snuff out Telegram. But the widespread disruption has been reported since Roskomnadzor launched its censorship.

On Monday, more than 7,000 people rallied in Moscow to complain about the ban on Telegram — more than the number who took to the streets of Moscow after the re-election of Russian leader Vladimir Putin in April. They threw paper planes — the messaging service's logo.

Advocating freedom

Russia’s best-known opposition activist, Alexei Navalny, told the crowd, “Our country is destitute, it's a really poor country, where nobody has any prospects. The only sector that has developed in recent years by itself — without the state, or subsidies, or favors — is the internet. And those people say, 'You're behaving badly on your internet, so we'll gobble it up.’”

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny attends a rally in protest against court decision to block the Telegram messenger, in Moscow, April 30, 2018.

Telegram's Durov praised the protesters. “Thousands of young and progressive people are now protesting in defense of internet freedom in Moscow — this is unprecedented,” he wrote on his page on VKontakte, the Russian version of Facebook.

Protest organizers say they want the repeal of “repressive Internet laws” and the dissolution of Roskomnadzor. “Our rights regarding secrecy of correspondence, freedom of speech and conscience are guaranteed by the constitution and cannot be restricted either by law or by conscience,” they said in a statement.

Of even greater embarrassment for the federal censors, they appear to be losing the support of some Kremlin officials and pro-Putin lawmakers, who also are voicing frustration with the ban.

Natalya Timakova, spokeswoman of Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, inadvertently publicized her irritation, and on Facebook recommended online tools to bypass any problems encountered when accessing Telegram. In a response to a lawmaker’s frustration, Timakova advised her to “install VPN,” a virtual private network that allows users to circumvent online restrictions.

The lawmaker, Natalya Kostenko, subsequently changed the settings on her Facebook account, so that only friends and family could view her page after the exchange with Timakova was picked up by news outlets.