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A Russia-wide internet slowdown in April 2018 was the result of a cat-and-mouse game between internet regulator Roskomnadzor and a cheeky messaging app hiding amid Google- and Amazon-hosted traffic. Looking back on the issue, why did the cat go after this particular mouse?
The case of Telegram shines a light into the heart of a very modern problem – the role of the internet in authoritarian regimes. The six-year-old messaging app has certain key features that have allowed it to stand out amid other apps such as WhatsApp and Viber, but it is the way in which Telegram has been used in Russia that has made it a serious threat, like no other online entity.
In April 2018, the Russian internet started experiencing major disruptions. Dozens of online services such as Skype, Gmail, and YouTube were either inaccessible to, or sluggish for, users in Russia. The culprit? Telegram. On 16 April, Russian media watchdog Roskomnadzor had begun enforcement of a court decree banning the use of Telegram on the territory of the Russian Federation. However, through deft use of technology, Telegram was able to hide its traffic through Google and Amazon’s hosting services using a technique called domain fronting.
Roskomnadzor had banned the app because it refused to hand over encryption keys to the Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s main security agency, which had cited the need [link in Russian] for the keys to gain access to the conversations of terrorists behind the 2017 St. Petersburg metro bombing. However, an investigation by Ilya Rozhdestvensky at Republic – an independent online magazine that is part of the same holding as the opposition channel TV Rain – found that, in the lead-up to the above-mentioned terror attack, extremists used mainly WhatsApp to communicate – not Telegram. And the FSB never made an official request to WhatsApp to cooperate on the matter.
What, then, was the real motivation behind trying to block Telegram? What guides the Kremlin’s selective approach to Internet control?
Problems With Authority
For autocrats all over the world, the rise of “new media” – which can be defined as the means of mass (multilateral) communication using digital technologies, such as online newspapers, social media, Telegram channels, and blogs – became another source of vulnerability.
According to Milan W. Svolik, a professor in political science at Yale, in order to stay in power, an autocrat has to consider two problems: the problem of authoritarian control and the problem of authoritarian power-sharing. The problem of authoritarian control revolves around preventing the rise of the masses and successful popular uprisings. The role of media, both old and new, directly concerns the problem of authoritarian control. Scholars and governments have long believed unregulated mass media to be a threat to authoritarian regimes, since it enables political opposition to coordinate and disseminate ideas potentially harmful to the regime.
An autocrat must also consider the problem of authoritarian power-sharing – the power dynamics between a ruling coalition of allies and a dictator. As Svolik writes, in a contested autocracy, the probability of a successful rebellion organized by the ruling coalition is high enough to threaten the dictator. In an established autocracy, though, “the balance of power favors the dictator to the extent that a rebellion is so unlikely to succeed that he correctly anticipates that the ruling coalition will not stage one.”
By this classification, Russia would definitely fall into the category of an established autocracy. Yet while the balance of power heavily favors Putin, Svolik suggests “even established autocrats are not free of constraints on their authority.” As such, autocrats maintain their dominance by periodically purging, rotating, or dismissing key administrators and military commanders. Indeed, Putin regularly engages in all of the above to balance the power of different power factions surrounding him. Normally, online technologies are largely irrelevant to this problem.
However, the presence and use of Telegram in Russia has changed all of that.
/Start Secret Chat
The messaging app Telegram was launched in 2013 by Pavel Durov and his brother Nikolai. The app's FAQs say that Pavel supports the project financially and ideologically while Nikolai’s contributions are technological.
Telegram reached 200 million monthly active users around the world in March 2018, according to Pavel Durov on the Telegram blog. Although Durov has never revealed the exact legal structure of his corporate group, it is known that until 2019 Telegram was registered in the UK, British Virgin Islands, and Belize.
However, Pavel Durov has revealed that the development team has migrated from country to country. “Telegram’s libertarian bent drove the team between jurisdictions every few months before settling in Dubai late last year.”
The app's early, very politicized history is an important factor distinguishing it from other messaging apps and making it so popular in Russia.
Prior to Telegram, Pavel Durov founded VKontakte (In Contact) – a Russian analog of Facebook – in 2006. VK quickly grew to become the most popular social network in Russian-speaking countries. However, the 2011-2013 Russian protests, which were organized and coordinated through VK and Facebook, as well as Arab Spring protests, led the Kremlin to attempt to control VK.
Durov continuously refused to cooperate with the FSB and by 2013 he was pressured into leaving the country and selling his VK stock, which eventually went to Mail.ru, a pro-Kremlin internet company.
It was during the last few years of his tenure at VK that Durov conceived the idea of Telegram. He is on record as stating: “The number one reason for me to support and help launch Telegram was to build a means of communication that can’t be accessed by the Russian security agencies”.
Telegram also benefited from two unrelated lucky coincidences at the time of its launch. First, the news of WhatsApp's being acquired by Facebook, around the time of Telegram's launch, led to a dramatic surge of new Telegram users, possibly driven by distrust of large tech platforms. Meanwhile, Facebook was also mentioned in connection with Edward Snowden’s revelations about data-sharing agreements between major tech companies and the U.S. Department of Defense’s National Security Agency.
To Russians, Telegram appeared to be a messaging platform that was free from both the Russian and U.S. governments’ gaze, and many Russians switched to Telegram as a consequence.
In addition, security features such as secret chats offering end-to-end encryption that cannot be intercepted by a third party; self-destructing messages; and the ability to “unsend” messages – both incoming and outgoing – all made Telegram an appealing platform of choice for opposition activists.
Features such as groups and channels were another factor distinguishing Telegram from other messaging apps – Telegram’s group chats can contain up to 200,000 members, compared to 256 in WhatsApp.
However, the defining feature of Telegram is the ability to broadcast information to large audiences through channels. There is no limit to the number of people who can join a channel. At first glance, channels are no more powerful than ordinary blogs or any other online platform, but in the Russian political scene, Telegram channels have developed a peculiarly important role.
After Telegram introduced channels in 2015, almost all mass media immediately created their own channels to have a presence on the platform.
It wasn't just mass media, either. Individuals started creating their own channels as well. But what differentiated Telegram from other platforms and made it appealing to people who already had followers through numerous other social media platforms?
Ilya Klishin at Republic has attributed Telegram’s success to social disillusionment. More specifically, bloggers and journalists on the Russian internet were getting tired of self-censorship, and frustrated that their newspaper or website might be shut down at any time.
Klishin explained: “A journalist who is writing for a couple of hundred Telegram subscribers after his day [at work] is akin to a clown who, after toiling away on the stage, goes back to his dressing room and gives a mini-performance ‘among friends.’ And it is only in that moment that the clown feels genuine pleasure.”
After all, off the official stage, the clown is expressing himself freely instead of performing to a script, and the same goes even more for journalists. Therefore, Telegram channels – with their lack of likes, comments, and replies – represent, paradoxically, a breath of freedom.
And while the content providers provide, it is content that the consumers want to consume. Many Russian internet users are confined to sources in their native language – in a way that internet users in countries with a higher proficiency in English are not, as noted by Russian politics and media academic Sarah Oates, in her book Revolution Stalled. Given that reality, and because traditional journalism has become so stale, many people have turned to Telegram.
In fact, it is the numerous anonymous political channels that have made Telegram an integral part of Russian politics. The most prominent one is “Nezygar” (“Not Zygar” – a reference to Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar who published All the Kremlin’s Men, a behind-the-scenes portrait of the court of Vladimir Putin).
At the time of this article, the channel has 220,000 subscribers, with an average post view of 70,000. The channel’s anonymity provides a sense of intrigue and, in some sense, extra credibility for the readers who eagerly read behind-the-scenes political gossip, leaks, and commentary by “insiders” that wouldn’t be available from any traditional media outlets.
While the actual substance of those leaks and the identity of those insiders are questionable, some do materialize in the real world. More recently, last month came a report by the “Proekt” channel citing two anonymous sources close to the Kremlin, predicting dismissal of up to six regional governors – a week before governors Marina Kovtun (Murmansk), Aleksandr Berdnikov (Altai), Yuri Berg (Orenburg), Aleksei Orlov (Kalmykia), and Boris Dubrovskiy (Chelyabinsk) all handed in their letters of resignation. “Proekt” (Project in English) is an online venture of a former TV Rain editor in chief.
As such, Telegram has become the go-to place for Russian political gossip and leaks. A member of a minister’s PR team has claimed that morning briefings would always start with monitoring reports from political channels such as Nezygar, and that politicians followed Telegram more closely than traditional media.
Opening up Pandora’s Little Black Box
It is not just in Russia that Telegram exacerbates the first problem of authoritarian survival – the problem of authoritarian control – by providing a medium through which dissenters can communicate and disseminate ideas potentially harmful to the regime. In December 2017, Iran restricted access to Telegram precisely because it was used to organize anti-establishment protests, before it was banned completely in 2018.
However, the way Telegram is used by the political establishment in Russia complicates the second problem of authoritarian survival, which is the problem of authoritarian power-sharing. To stay firmly in power, Putin needs to balance the power ambitions of different elite factions, from St. Petersburg associates (Dmitry Medvedev, Alexei Kudrin), to the so-called siloviki (Sergei Ivanov, Igor Sechin), oligarchs (Boris Rotenberg, Gennady Timchenko), and many others.
The Kremlin’s decision-making process prior to the advent of Telegram could be characterized as a black box. Since then, though, Telegram has effectively hijacked agenda-setting power, making the information flow more chaotic.
Different power factions can get a glimpse into the Kremlin’s agenda through myriad, anonymous “tip-offs” present in Telegram channels. Even if the veracity of such sources is usually unknown, members of the political establishment cannot afford to ignore them, especially since some of the predictions have come true. And, if they are truly following Telegram more closely than the traditional media, their actions and interactions could be more unpredictable, prompted by information not originally meant for public consumption. In addition, leaks from the Kremlin as well as the parliament can remove the element of surprise from Putin’s actions and, as a result, undermine his authoritarian dominance.
A Matter of Survival – for Both Sides in the Struggle?
So far, the Kremlin and Roskomnadzor have failed in their mission to block Telegram. Almost a year after the April 2018 internet brawl between Roskomnadzor and Telegram, even those Russians who are not tech savvy know the words “proxy” and “VPN,” and it seems that the regulator’s actions have even helped Telegram by providing massive publicity. For example, a month after the ban, the audience of Telegram channels like “Stalingulag” – which mercilessly criticizes politicians, journalists, and oligarchs – rose by 18.5 percent, to 287,000. And at the time of writing, it has 300,000 subscribers. On top of that, the ban triggered protests all over Russia that included more than 12,000 people in Moscow alone.
However, Roskomnadzor hasn’t given up. According to Reuters, the media watchdog has been experimenting with more precise technology in an attempt to ban Telegram once and for all. Furthermore, the Kremlin is currently taking radical steps to tighten control over the internet even further, by attempting to isolate the Russian internet from the world. The Kremlin is treading a very fine line. It is not yet clear whether these measures will further consolidate authoritarian rule, or become a tipping point for large-scale unrest among Russians.
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