June 29, 2020

A messaging app won a cat-and-mouse game with the Russian government

The government wanted in, but Telegram’s founder said nyet.

Photo: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP via Getty Images

Tech entrepreneurs brag about a lot of things, but not many of them can boast about outfoxing Russia.

Pavel Durov, the founder of the messaging app Telegram, is different. This month, the Russian government finally relented after trying to block his app for 2 years. 

The government wanted in, but Durov said nyet

As The Washington Post told it: Durov is an elusive privacy warrior who refused to give Russia access to Telegram users’ encrypted messages. 

The app is popular — and controversial. It says it has 400m monthly users worldwide, including 30m in Russia. In the US, white supremacists have used the platform to organize.

Roskomnadzor, the Russian agency responsible for internet censorship, tried to ban Telegram in 2018, but eventually failed. One reason why: It’s hard to ban something when your own government officials keep using it.

But don’t call him a hero just yet

Durov’s tactics for avoiding the crackdown caused collateral damage. When Roskomnadzor blocked IP addresses that Telegram had used, the game of internet whack-a-mole took down other services, too.

Russia’s not the only country to give Telegram the stink eye: Here in the US, the SEC said Friday that Telegram would pay an $18.5m fine to resolve allegations that its sale of cryptocurrency tokens violated federal securities laws.

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