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Telegram plays down Russian block — claiming no ‘significant’ impact yet

A court in Russia ordered a block of messaging app Telegram this week but founder Pavel Durov has shrugged off the impact of the ban 24 hours in — claiming the app hasn’t seen “a significant drop in user engagement so far.”

Russia began (trying to) block Telegram yesterday, following a court ruling in Moscow earlier this week. The state communication watchdog had filed a lawsuit to limit access to the service after Telegram refused to hand over encryption keys — and the court granted the block.

In an update posted to his Telegram channel, Durov writes: “For the last 24 hours Telegram has been under a ban by internet providers in Russia. The reason is our refusal to provide encryption keys to Russian security agencies. For us, this was an easy decision. We promised our users 100% privacy and would rather cease to exist than violate this promise.

“Despite the ban, we haven’t seen a significant drop in user engagement so far, since Russians tend to bypass the ban with VPNs and proxies. We also have been relying on third-party cloud services to remain partly available for our users there.”

Durov goes on to thank Telegram users in Russia for their support — saying the country accounts for about 7 percent of the app’s user base. (Last month Telegram announced passing 200 million monthly active users, which suggests it has about 14 million users in Russia.)

He also name-checks four U.S. tech giants — Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft — for, as he puts it, “not taking part in political censorship”

Telegram moved some of its infrastructure to third-party cloud services to try to make it harder for authorities to block access to its app. But the Russian state responded by blocking millions of IP addresses belonging to Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud, apparently causing collateral damage to swathes of other digitally delivered services. (Even reportedly to some credit card terminals.)

So how long those other tech companies stand firm remains to be seen.

In some cases direct political pressure — not just the collateral damage of service disruption — appears to be being brought to bear on them by the Russian state.

According to the Interfax news agency (via Reuters) the Russian telecoms agency has informed Amazon and Google that a “significant” number of their IP addresses are being blocked on the basis of the court ruling to block Telegram.

We’ve reached out to both to ask whether they will continue to host Telegram on their cloud services.

Reuters also reports that Russia’s state telecommunications regulator has asked Google and Apple to remove the Telegram messenger service from their app stores, citing the Interfax news agency.

We’ve also asked Apple how it intends to respond too. Last year the company bowed to state pressure in China and removed major VPN apps from its App Storesaying it was complying with a local regulation that requires VPN apps to be licensed by the government.

Russian authorities have claimed they need access to Telegram’s encryption for counter-terrorism purposes. However opponents of Vladimir Putin’s regime argue the Russian president uses claims of combating terrorism as an instrument to consolidate his own undemocratic grip on power.

Durov concludes his update about the block saying he intends to give out “millions” of dollars’ worth in Bitcoin grants this year — to “individuals and companies who run socks5 proxies and VPN” — and thus who help to bolster the resilience of Internet infrastructure against state attempts to control access.

“I am happy to donate millions of dollars this year to this cause, and hope that other people will follow. I called this Digital Resistance — a decentralized movement standing for digital freedoms and progress globally,” he adds.

The company is in the midst of a billion-dollar ICO, raising money via a token sale to develop a cryptocurrency and blockchain platform of its own.

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