Russians Take to the Streets to Protest Telegram Ban

After weeks of feuding between the Russian government and Telegram, thousands of protesters and activists flooded Moscow’s streets demanding a free internet.

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May 2 2018, 1:30pm

An icon of Telegram founder Pavel Durov held by a participant in a May Day demonstration, an annual youth performance art rally, marking International Workers' Day on Nevsky Prospekt Street in St Petersburg. Peter Kovalev/TASS (Photo by Peter Kovalev\TASS via Getty Images)

Thousands of protesters flooded Moscow's streets on Monday with paper planes in hand to protest the government's Telegram ban. Linked shoulder to shoulder, a crowd of between 7,000 and 13,000 Russians tossed the planes in the air in an act of solidarity with the encrypted messaging service. A banner with the words, #Digital Resistance flew behind the stage.

Protesters waved flags and held up signs saying, “Don’t block on me,” and “Big Moron is Not Blocking you.”

During the protest, Russian activist Aleksei Navalny took to the stage to advocate for internet freedom. His words and the tenor of the protest quickly expanded beyond the scope of the Telegram issue and towards criticisms of President Vladimir Putin.

Tuesday’s demonstration marked the second paper plane protest in as many weeks.

On April 20, Telegram Founder Pavel Durov called on supporters to protest Russia’s Telegram ban by flying the paper planes out of their windows.

“If you live in Russia and support free internet, fly a paper plane from your window at seven p.m. local time today.” Durov wrote in Russian on social media site VK. “Please collect the airplanes in your neighborhood an hour later.”

Many Russians answered Durov’s request leading him to call for a second protest—larger and better organized.

The notorious Russian punk rock protest group Pussy Riot were among those who engaged in the protests. Maria Alyokhina, one of the group’s members, was arrested last week for throwing paper airplanes in front of the Federal Security Service Building.

The Federal Security Service, which is comprised of many former Soviet Union KGB officers, is Russia’s top security agency. Prior to the ban, the FSB had accused Telegram of facilitating terrorism.

Tech Giants Lumped Into the Dispute

The feud between Russia and Telegram has entered its third week and there's no sign of tensions simmering down anytime soon.

Some of the internet’s biggest players, like Google and Amazon, found themselves in the middle of the conflict.

Along with the utilization of VPNs Telegram relied on a workaround called domain-fronting to circumvent the ban. Domain-fronting works by hiding the true endpoint of a given connection and can be used to avoid state surveillance.

An April 18 Google update, however, has since disabled domain-fronting on Google services. This week, Amazon followed suit. In a post on its website, Amazon said it was shutting down domain-fronting in order to combat malware.

In an effort to eliminate Telegram from the country, the Russian government media regulator Roskomnadzor called on Microsoft, Google, and Apple to remove the app from their stores.

So far none of them have complied.

Some Google and Amazon IP address also continue to host Telegram, prompting the government to intervene. Google and Amazon IP addresses across Russia have reportedly been targeted as a result. Russians have since experienced difficulty using Google products like Drive, Gmail, and even the reCAPTCHA test which distinguishes humans from bots.

Russia’s attempted enforcement of the ban stretches far and wide. According to Polygon, some Twitch users are also feeling the burden of disruption. Twitch was purchased by Amazon in 2014.

In total, the government has reportedly blocked over 19 million IP addresses.

Roskomnadzor directly called out Google via Facebook on April 22 for refusing to cut ties with Telegram.

“Google has now failed to meet the requirements of Roskomnadzor and, in violation of the court's verdict, continues to allow the Telegram messenger company limited liability partnership to use its ip addresses to carry out activities in Russia,” the post said in Russian.

On April 25, Roskomnadzor released a public statement confirming talks had occurred between the agency and representatives from Google and Amazon.

“The Federal Service continues working contacts with Amazon and Google with the aim of stopping the provision of Telegram IP-addresses with the purpose of messenger work in Russia in violation of the court decision,” the statement said in Russian. “Contacts with Amazon to positive results have not yet led, perhaps for political reasons.”

Why Telegram? Why Now?

Telegram launched nearly five years ago. While Telegram has experienced instances of hostility from the Russian government in the past, these provocations never resulted in a total, indefinite block.

According to journalist and author, Andrei Soldatov, the ban’s timing may be the result of larger political strategizing in the Kremlin.

“Before the presidential election Putin needed all kinds of communications to get a turnout he was promised, that was 70 percent.” Soldatov told Motherboard over email. “So they were not ready to block a popular media as Telegram is more media than a messenger because of channels' option. After the election, the objective changed - now it's more about control than before.”

Putin handedly won re-election with 75 percent of the vote on March 18.

If Telegram has any shot at staying above water in this war, it needs the help of bigger players, according to Mozilla Open Web Fellow at Freedom of the Press Foundation Freddy Martinez.

“It’s unclear if Telegream can continue service without sustained support from Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud Engine,” Martinez told Motherboard over Signal.

It also remains uncertain whether Google and Amazon will continue their support in the face of increasing government pressure. The decision to curtail domain-fronting on Google and Amazon services hinders Telegram’s ability to operate in Russia.

“It’s possible that Amazon and Google [will] kick the application off its services because it’s not worth it for them,” Martinez said. “It’s not clear what their appetite for protecting Telegram is.”

If they do lose support Telegram says it will continue to push back. Telegram issued a statement saying it intends to work around Russia’s ban through the use of updates. Telegrams founder, Pavel Durov, has remained vocal throughout the affair.

Telegram did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.

“Durov is playing a game by getting bigger platforms involved,” Soldatov said. “So it's up to these platforms [Amazon and Google], and the Kremlin, what could happen next. But I fear that if the Kremlin will survive another week like this, they could decide that [the] political costs of banning bigger platforms are not that high. It could mean bad things for Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, but also Telegram.”