The encryption debate has reached the Kremlin.
Last week, Russia's state communication watchdog Roskomnadzor filed a lawsuit to limit access to the Telegram messaging service after the company refused to hand over encryption keys. Friday, Russian courts moved forward to immediately block the app in the country.
Many Russians use Telegram’s encrypted messaging service; Russia’s primary security agency, the Federal Security Service, has repeatedly blamed Telegram for facilitating communication between terrorist organizations.
According to Russian state media RT, the Roskomnadzor said the block will remain in place until Telegram provides encryption keys. Representatives from Telegram were reportedly absent during the hearing but plan to appeal the decision.
Telegram claims to have more than 100,000,000 monthly users, though it does not publish country-level user statistics, so we don’t know how many Russians use the app and how many will have their service disrupted.
Kremlin officials use Telegram themselves and announced they will seek out a new service following the ban, according to Reuters.
The blocking was met with criticism free internet advocacy groups.
“Encryption is essential to the definition of human rights,” Access Now general counsel Peter Micek told Motherboard on the phone. “It is essential to financial transactions and the free flow of information of all kinds. We are confident that [Russian] law enforcement has plenty of tools at their disposal to do their jobs effectively that don't threaten human rights.”
Micek added that he did not agree with the Russian government's justification that it was banning Telegram in order to fight terrorism: “Terrorism is the wrapping paper we see lots of censorship proposals wrapped in,” he said.
Telegram did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment, but Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov said in a statement that “privacy is not for sale, and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed.”
Since the start of the block, Telegram has made some effort to circumvent it by encouraging the use of its proxy features option in the app’s settings. Durov also wrote on the Russian social media site VK that the company will attempt to roll out features in future updates to bypass the block.
“Telegram will use built-in methods to bypass locks, which do not require actions from users, however 100 percent availability of the service without VPN is not guaranteed,” Durov wrote in Russian. “Regardless of the presence of a lock, Telegram will retain the ability to centrally send notifications to all Russian users, informing about the development of the situation.”
The block comes less than a month after the re-election of Russian President Vladimir Putin, fueling concerns from international activist groups that he is trying to weaken political opposition.
“By attempting to block the Telegram messaging app, the Russian authorities are launching the latest in a series of attacks on online freedom of expression in the country,” Amnesty International Deputy Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia said in a statement against the decision.
The ban follows several high profile cases of governments limiting access to encrypted messaging services. In late December and early January, the Iranian government temporarily banned Telegram and several social media sites during days of protest. Last year, protesters in Ethiopia also had their social media access cut off.