Amazon, Google and Facebook All Face Pressure in Russia

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(Bloomberg View) -- The Russian authorities' first experiment with blocking a popular messenger application -- Telegram -- is not working out so far. The web censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, has blocked millions of internet addresses to beat Telegram into submission, but it's still widely available even without any bypass mechanisms, while numerous legitimate sites have experienced downtime.

The Russian social networks have exploded with sarcastic memes, but the merriment is likely misplaced. The experience will almost certainly push Russia toward the Great Chinese Firewall model, which will include reprisals on virtual private networks and Western cloud services. Roskomnadzor plans to block Facebook by the end of this year, and it will need to get better at it -- and to get more resources -- to succeed against such a formidable adversary. There's no indication that the Kremlin will deny the necessary funding.

Telegram, which has about 15 million users in Russia, has been banned for its refusal to hand over encryption keys to Russia's domestic intelligence, the FSB. The messenger, which also hosts thousands of "channels" with all sorts of content, from political insiders' musings to darknet business advice, was well-prepared for Roskomnadzor's attempt to block it starting Monday. The only method Roskomnadzor has used so far to block sites was to order internet providers to cut off access to certain IP addresses. Telegram started routing users to numerous IP addresses that weren't on the censor's blacklist. They belonged to the world's leading cloud services, run by Amazon and Google.

Roskomnadzor attempted to rise to the challenge. According to usher2.club, a service run by an anonymous hacker to track the number of IP addresses blocked by the censor, it went from hundreds of thousands of addresses to millions. About 16 million were being blocked at the time of this writing. The problem with this approach is that Telegram can keep using new IP addresses from the cloud providers, but the blocks inevitably affect other sites that these providers host on the same subnetworks. E-commerce businesses, a delivery service, a language school and Viber, a messenger Russia had no intention of blocking, were among the many affected; so were a couple of major banks, a payment service, the networks used by Sony Playstation and Xbox players. Even the Kremlin museums were forced to stop selling electronic tickets because of the blocks. 

Roskomnadzor set up a hotline for legitimate services so they could demand to be taken off the blacklist, and none has remained offline long enough to be able to sue for serious damages. Otherwise the censor has been unfazed. In an interview with the pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia, Roskomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov denied that any legitimate services suffered. The censor has demanded that Apple and Google kick Telegram out of their Russian app stores, and it's betting that the cloud service providers will stop helping Telegram with capacity to avoid repercussions. "We count on both Amazon and Google to prioritize their business over political motives," Zharov told Izvestia. "The U.S. companies must create technical conditions that will make the service unavailable in Russian territory." 

Zharov accused Telegram founder Pavel Durov of hiding behind the backs of legitimate resources to thumb his nose at the regulator. He pointed to the example of Zello, a Texas-based walkie-talkie app, blocked by Roskomnadzor at the request of the FSB, which alleged it was being used by terrorists. Zello deployed a similar tactic to Telegram's before it was told to stop first by Amazon and then by Google.

Durov, for his part, used his Telegram channel -- accessible to most Russian users, too, despite Roskomnadzor's efforts -- to thank Apple, Google,  Amazon and Microsoft "for not taking part in political censorship." (Apple and Microsoft are included because their operating systems enabled Telegram to push constantly changing IP addresses to Russian users). But U.S. internet companies -- which already accept a host of restrictions in China -- will inevitably have to choose between continuing to keep Telegram alive in Russia and keeping other Russian clients and the revenue they bring. The memes portraying Roskomnadzor as a gun-wielding madman firing off a targetless hail of bullets into space are appealing, but the space is owned by profit-seeking corporations, and my bet is against Telegram's ability to continue its cat-and-mouse game indefinitely.

Durov is prepared for that eventuality. "Russia accounts for around  7 percent of the Telegram user base, and even if we lose that entire market, Telegram’s organic growth in other regions will compensate for this loss within a couple of months," he wrote. He added that he'd started giving out Bitcoin grants to companies and individuals running proxies and VPN services that will allow Russian Telegram users to retain access to the service. These bypass options are the next fallback after the cloud tactic fails.

But if Russians do start relying on proxies and VPNs en masse, it will push Roskomnadzor to take a further step toward the Chinese system, which, starting this year, includes a ban on non-state-sanctioned VPNs -- and which has long enabled censors to block VPNs by recognizing their encrypted traffic at the points where it crossed the Chinese border. That sort of action will require investment in technology the Russian government hasn't employed yet, but the logic of events suggests that it won't give up halfway.

In the Izvestia interview, Zharov said his agency will start blocking Facebook by the end of this year unless it complies with a Russian legal requirement that it keep Russian citizens' data on servers physically located in Russia and removes all the content that violates Russian laws. Given Facebook's size -- it has almost twice as many users in Russia as Telegram -- blocking it won't be easy if the company decides to resist. With Telegram, Roskomnadzor is testing its capacity for making good on its threats and demonstrating to the government that additional investments might need to be made. It's also practicing negotiations from a position of force with world-leading U.S. companies. Russia doesn't have China's size and is increasingly toxic politically, but fighting the Kremlin may soon become counterproductive for these firms. Telegram, for all its popularity, is not the central issue here -- Russia's connectedness to the global internet industry is.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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