By blocking Telegram, Russia crosses another red line in online censorship
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns today’s decision by a Moscow court to order the immediate blocking of the popular encrypted messaging service Telegram after it refused to surrender its encryption keys to the Russian intelligence agencies. The decision represents yet another escalation in online censorship and an additional obstacle to journalism in Russia, RSF said.
Telegram is expected to be blocked very soon as a result of the order issued today by Moscow’s Tagansky district court in response to a request by the Russian telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor.
Telegram’s lawyers did not attend the hearing, which lasted barely one hour, saying they did not wanted to legitimize an “obvious farce” by their presence. Telegram had been asked to hand over the encryption keys under Russia’s 2016 anti-terrorism law. The app is very popular in Russia, where it has more than 10 million users and is widely used by reporters, who rely on its encryption to protect the identity of their sources.
“By blocking Telegram, the Russian authorities are crossing another red line in their control of the Internet,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk.
“This is a major new blow to free speech in Russia. It also sends a strong intimidatory signal to the digital technology giants that are battling with the Russian authorities. The authorities are targeting a tool that is essential for the work of journalists, especially for the confidentiality of their sources and data.”
The battle between Telegram and the Russian authorities began nearly a year ago and took a new twist on 20 March, when Roskomnadzor applied for a court order blocking the messaging service.
Officials had been issuing statements to prepare public opinion for this step. They included Alexander Bortnikov, the head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), who said on 4 April that all acts of terrorism committed or averted in Russia in 2017 had been coordinated by means of messaging services.
Although Telegram has blocked “broadcast channels” used by terrorists, the messaging service has proved to be very respectful of privacy and has always refused to give the FSB access to the communications of its users.
Telegram insists that it does not have access to the encryption keys of chats, which are generated on the individual devices of its users. Its lawyers insisted that Roskomnadzor’s request had no legal basis and violated the Russian constitution. Telegram’s refusal to comply had already led to a fine in October of 800,000 roubles (11,500 euros) that was upheld on appeal.
Two well-known independent journalists, Oleg Kashin and Alexander Plyushchev, announced yesterday that they have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights about the proposed blocking of Telegram. They previously filed an unsuccessful complaint in Russia against the FSB claiming that the threats to Telegram and other encryption tools violated their right to the confidentiality of their sources.
In a 2015 report, UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye said robust encryption tools were essential for free speech and press freedom and called on governments to limit themselves to specific and strictly proportionate restrictions on the use of encryption, and to refrain from excessive measures, such as insisting on the holding of encryption keys.
Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.