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Privacy, Human Rights Groups Decry Russian Ban on Telegram

Dozens of privacy, human rights, and Internet companies are calling on the Russian government to stop restricting access to the Telegram encrypted messaging app and asking the United Nations to look into the government’s actions.

In a letter published Monday, the coalition condemned the Russian government’s actions and requested that the law that led to the move against Telegram be repealed. The coalition, which includes the EFF, Privacy International, EPIC, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders, said that Russia’s actions have caused widespread Internet disruptions in recent weeks as the government has blocked millions of IP addresses.

The restriction of user access to Telegram in Russia is the result of a law passed two years ago that essentially required the company to give up the keys to its encrypted messaging service. Telegram officials have refused and gone through the courts in Russia, without success.

“The 2016 so-called ‘Yarovaya Law’, justified on the grounds of “countering extremism”, requires all communications providers and Internet operators to store metadata about their users’ communications activities, to disclose decryption keys at the security services’ request, and to use only encryption methods approved by the Russian government – in practical terms, to create a backdoor for Russia’s security agents to access internet users’ data, traffic, and communications,” the letter from the coalition says.

“In October 2017, a magistrate found Telegram guilty of an administrative offense for failing to provide decryption keys to the Russian authorities – which the company states it cannot do due to Telegram’s use of end-to-end encryption.”

Last month, Telegram lost an appeal of the Russian court’s ruling, allowing the government to begin blocking the service in Russia. To do so, the Russian communications authority, Roskomnadzor, started blocking about 20 million IP addresses in mid-April, a move that wound up blocking many other services, as well. Last week, Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov said the company’s service was still operating in Russia despite the IP address blocking.

“Blocking websites or apps is an extreme measure, analogous to banning a newspaper or revoking the license of a TV station."

“For 7 days Russia has been trying to ban Telegram on its territory – with no luck so far. I’m thrilled we were able to survive under the most aggressive attempt of internet censorship in Russian history with almost 18 million IP addresses blocked,” Durov said.

In the letter, the coalition asks the Russian government to stop blocking Telegram, stop asking encrypted messaging services to surrender keys, and repeal the provisions in the law that require such actions. The letter also calls on the U.N. and other international organizations “to scrutinise and publicly challenge Russia’s actions in order to uphold the fundamental rights to freedom of expression and privacy both online and-offline”.

Encrypted messaging apps, VPNs, and other systems that allow users to communicate with some measure of security and anonymity have come under sharp scrutiny in many countries in recent years, including Russia, China, Iran, and others. In countries that restrict freedom of speech and expression, Internet censorship also has become a serious issue.

“Blocking websites or apps is an extreme measure, analogous to banning a newspaper or revoking the license of a TV station. As such, it is highly likely to constitute a disproportionate interference with freedom of expression and media freedom in the vast majority of cases, and must be subject to strict scrutiny,” the coalition’s letter says.

“At a minimum, any blocking measures should be clearly laid down by law and require the courts to examine whether the wholesale blocking of access to an online service is necessary and in line with the criteria established and applied by the European Court of Human Rights. Blocking Telegram and the accompanying actions clearly do not meet this standard.”