With 9.5 million users, Telegram is one of Russia’s most popular messaging apps [Dado Ruvic/Reuters]
A Russian District Court has granted a request by the country’s media authority, Roskomnxdzor, to start blocking Telegram, the messaging application or app, because of its refusal to hand over encryption keys.
The decision was made on Friday after a 40-minute hearing in Moscow, which was not attended by the company’s lawyers at the request of Telegram’s founder and chief executive, Pavel Durov.
Durov later announced that encrypted messaging app would use built-in systems to circumnavigate the ban.
However, he said on his page in the VK social network that he could not guarantee that users would retain access to Telegram without using virtual private networks (VPNs).
Durov was referring to a technology used to get around restricted internet services and improve anonymity.
The case was brought to court last year by the FSB, Russia internal security service.
The FSB had requested Telegram, which has more than 200 million users worldwide, to hand over encryption keys, which would allow the authorities to read all messages sent using Telegram.
According to the security agency, Telegram was used extensively by “international terrorist organisations”, and its encryption technology made it hard to follow their communications.
However, Telegram refused to hand over these encryption keys, saying it would not compromise the privacy of all of its 200 million users around the world.
WATCH: Iran unblocks Telegram messaging app as protests wane
Judge Yulia Smolina said in her decision that the ban was to be implemented immediately, Russian press agency TASS reported.
“The ban on access to information will be in force until the FSB’s demands are met on providing keys for decrypting user messages,” she said.
In his reaction to Friday’s decision, Durov also implied the Russian government was motivated by money.
“The power that local governments have over IT corporations is based on money. At any given moment, a government can crash their stocks by threatening to block revenue streams from its markets and thus force these companies to do strange things,” he said.
“Privacy is not for sale, and human rights should not be compromised out of fear or greed.”
With 9.5 million users, Telegram is one of Russia’s most popular messaging apps, and it is used extensively by both private citizens as well as the government, which uses it among other things to send out messages regarding conference calls for journalists.
Iran and Indonesia
The app has been subject to blocks before in other countries, most notably Iran and Indonesia.
In Iran, Telegram was used extensively by protestesters during 2017 protests. The demonstrators used the app to plan and coordinate gatherings around the country to criticise the government.
As a result, the app was blocked by the Iranian government.
In Indonesia, Telegram was blocked because of reasons similar to those cited by Russia. The government had said app was used to spread “radical and terrorist propaganda”.
That ban was lifted after Indonesia claimed to have taken steps to “block negative content”.
Incidentally, Telegram has been one of the favourite methods of communication for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, using the app’s feature of open channels that can be followed by anyone using the app to spread ISIL propaganda.
However, Telegram is also popular among human rights activists for the same reason, as it allows them to communicate relatively securely to a large group of people.