The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Russian government just managed to hack itself

Activists bring a sack with about 2,000 paper airplanes symbolizing the logo of the messaging app Telegram to the door of the St. Petersburg, Russia,  department of Roskomnadzor, the state communications oversight agency, to protest against a government ban on the app, on April 13. (Dmitri Lovetsky/AP)

Alexey Kovalev is editor of the Russian news site

Russia has a rich history of Internet censorship. The government’s “blacklist” of banned websites includes dozens of thousands of URLs, ranging from genuinely criminal online drug markets and illegal porn websites to opposition media and even LinkedIn.

But its latest attempt to impose a ban has turned into a farce. On Monday, following an earlier court order and a long legal battle, Russia’s state media watchdog Roskomnadzor announced that Telegram, a popular messenger service, would be blocked in Russia. Russian security services claim that the company’s strong encryption has made it a tool of terrorists.

Not only has the ban utterly failed to achieve its objective — at the time of this writing, Telegram remains available in Russia and is quickly gaining new users — but instead it’s harming dozens of entirely unrelated websites and online services.

Roskomnadzor has no powers to ban any websites on its own but rather, sends lists of IP addresses to Internet service providers, which are supposed to block them. As soon as the agency made its announcement, Telegram responded by shifting its operations to Amazon and Google’s cloud infrastructure, which Roskomnadzor then tried to ban in turn, blacklisting entire subnets containing millions of IPs. To disastrous effect: Thousands of Russian businesses, services and even parts of the country’s critical IT infrastructure depend on the same cloud servers as Telegram.

Online stores, English language classes, cab services, streaming websites and dozens of other Web-based enterprises, both domestic and foreign, used daily by millions of Russians, are still struggling. (Their number also include, the site for which I currently work.) Millions of rubles have been wiped out in lost revenue, and the affected businesses are planning to file a class-action suit against Roskomnadzor.

In a supreme touch of irony, just as Roskomnadzor director Alexander Zharov was claiming in an interview to RT, a state TV network, that no “socially relevant resources” had been affected by the ban, RT’s own video news agency, Ruptly, went offline for a few hours. Even RT Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan, herself an avid Telegram user, is defiantly ignoring the ban.

Telegram, designed by a charismatic libertarian Pavel Durov, who communicates his techno-utopian views via eccentric Instagram pics, isn’t the most widely used messenger in Russia, since it’s dwarfed by WhatsApp and Viber.

But it’s certainly the most influential. The easiest way to reach Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova? Telegram. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov used to announce his press briefings on Telegram. (After the ban he moved to ICQ, the once- dominant messenger now owned by the email giant Government ministers, top officials — including those who themselves vocally campaigned for Telegram’s ban — and parliament members all use it. And why not? It’s reliable and easy to use, and lots of the people you might want to contact are on it.

But Telegram’s defining feature is its “channels,” a proto-blogging platform that allows users to subscribe to popular authors. There are thousands of them, ranging from ultra-specialized outlets to massively popular political commentary, rumor mills and leak farms with hundreds of thousands of subscribers. There are even at least two Telegram channels allegedly run by insiders from the infamous St. Petersburg “troll factory.”

It’s a booming business, too: Last year Vedomosti, an independent business daily, reported that ads on the most popular channels cost as much as 450,000 rubles (about $7,400 at the current exchange rate).

The security services, which want to listen in on all this, demanded that the messenger give up its encryption keys. Durov declined, saying that his lawyers wouldn’t be taking part in the trial so as not to “justify this abject farce with our presence.”

But few, even the most vocal state loyalists, are buying the official argument. Terrorists use all kinds of communication means and services — are we supposed to ban them all for the sake of our safety? The answer seems to be a resolute no. Most agree that it’s Durov’s defiance that led to the ban.

Watching this debacle, many Russians are wondering: How is it possible that a country accused of waging sophisticated cyberwarfare campaigns around the world is so utterly incompetent in domestic tech affairs? There is now a theory circulating on Russian Facebook that the ban was deliberately botched so as to create exactly this kind of plausible deniability. Like most conspiracy theories, it’s far-fetched but illustrative: People would rather believe in sabotage than state-sponsored incompetence so gross that it threatens the country’s own IT backbone.

The immediate result of the Telegram ban fiasco, argues prominent Russian tech expert Anton Merkurov, will be “millions of digital emigres,” people — many of them fundamentally apolitical — who will simply turn their backs on the state. Which, as they are now acutely aware, is willing to ignore their interests and ruin their businesses to punish a recalcitrant outsider.

Russian authorities have long been toying with an idea of a “Great Russian Firewall” akin to the one built by the Chinese: a working domestic Internet infrastructure that is almost entirely isolated from the outside world. But it remains a dream, today more distant than ever. Russia is already too globalized and dependent on the Internet as we know it today to be able to become a digital hermit. That may be the only good news to emerge from this mess.