What Prompted Sudden Truce Between Telegram and Russian Watchdogs: Main Theories


On June 18th, Russia’s internet and media watchdog Roskomnadzor posted a short notice saying that Telegram messenger is no longer subject to blocking in the Russian Federation. The ban that lasted for two years and has been lifted because the messenger executives agreed to cooperate with the authorities in fighting terrorism and extremism.

Five days later, Vladimir Putin announced that the tax for IT companies will be lowered from 20% to 3%.

On June 1st, the head of the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of the Russian Federation (MinComSvyaz) stated that he won’t mind Telegram establishing an office in Russia. On June 9th, Telegram vice president Ilia Perekopsky participated in a government meeting in Innopolis.

The suddenly warm relationship between former enemies gave rise to speculations about the nature of this peace agreement. ForkLog summarized the most popular theories that could explain the closeness between Telegram and Russian authorities.

The Absurdity of Further Blocking

From April 2018 and up until recently, Telegram was blocked in Russia because of the messenger’s refusal to “hand over the keys” that would allow Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) to decrypt users’ messages as required by the Yarovaya law. The authorities disregarded the arguments about the technical and legal impossibility of the requirements.

Yet, Roskomnadzor was unable to carry out the blocking to its full extent. Telegram enabled built-in methods of circumvention and continued working. Meanwhile, millions of IP addresses owned by international companies, including Google, Amazon, Digital Ocean, and Microsoft, were affected by Roskomnadzor’s attempts.

In late 2018, aiming to finally put the messenger down and get the ability to block protocols Roskomnadzor pushed for the state-wide introduction of Deep Package Inspection (DPI) equipment. The resulting “sovereign Runet” law came into effect on November 1st, 2019.

The authorities announced a $130,000 (9.2 million rubles) tender for anonymous and decentralized network research. Telegram carried on unaffected, reportedly passing the 400 million users mark.

Exante’s analyst Victor Argonov suggests that one of the reasons Telegram and Roskomnadzor got along is the lapse of time.

“MinComSvyazi had probably finally compared the cost of the blocking to its effectiveness.”

According to TON Labs CTO Dmitry Goroshevsky, blocking Telegram was harmful to Roskomnadzor’s reputation. Roskomsvoboda’s CTO Stanislav Shakirov noted that the authority just had to find a convenient moment to stop tilting at windmills.

Carrots Before Election

According to Shakirov, another reason cloud be the willingness to increase ratings among voters. In late June, Russia had a blockchain-based election deciding on the amendments to the Russian constitution.

According to Vladislav Zdolnikov, the author at IT and COPM Telegram channel, political scientists recommended stopping blocking the messenger to “relieve social stress among young and active part of the society and increase the government’s rating.”

“Since blocking Telegram isn’t currently a matter of principle for the government, they sacrificed [the blocking initiative] in favor of ratings,” Zdolnikov wrote.

He added that the relief may last “until blocking Telegram as a free platform is a matter of principle once again.”

The Kremlin changed its approach to the messenger shifting “from a technical prohibition to purchasing influential channels in bulk and public deanonymization of the authors of the most influential projects,” according to another anonymous Telegram channel.

“All this has made the agenda within the previously protest messenger almost pro-Kremlin. Given the development of digital political technologies and non-functioning blocking, the restrictions are meaningless,” the authors noted. 

Ally to Fight the West

In his speech in Innopolis, Ilya Perekopsky repeated Pavel Durov’s words criticizing the monopoly held by Apple and Google.

Telegram vice president offered Russia to discuss the 30% “tax” the American giants charge mobile developers with.

According to Telegram channel MediaTech, Durov’s suggestion about a mandatory pre-installation of alternative app marketplaces can mean that the messenger plans to launch its own app store.

Independent expert Alexander Isavnin found it interesting that Telegram chose Russia to be its ally in the fight against IT corporations.

“It seems that Pavel prepares a revolution. It isn’t clear yet whether he will succeed, but he allies with regulators. The negative things he says about Apple and Google are very similar to the things European regulators say,” Isavnin said.

The expert warned that Telegram assumes risks and in the case of failure the messenger may face blocking in the U.S.

MixBytes’s head of research Sergey Prilutskiy believes that Durov bets on the Russian origin of his creation:

“The West has shown the same level of pressure on business as Russia. Given that, Durov could have reasonably decided that the project is better off with Russian resources since Russia was the place where Telegram became a really significant project and an important part of the Russian-speaking internet segment,” Prilutskiy noted.

In May 2020, because of the conflict with the SEC Durov’s team stopped developing Telegram Open Network and its cryptocurrency Gram, for which the company raised $1.7 billion in investments. As a part of the settlement, TON returned $1.2 billion to investors. The founders of the project will also pay $18.5 to the regulator.

Exante’s Victor Argonov suggests that the debt with investors forced Durov to get close with the Russian authorities to repair the reputation:

“Moreover, looking at the confrontation between [TON and the SEC] Russian authorities got an opportunity to support a domestic project and form a friendship based on the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle. It is possible that the project is currently in its most attractive form for Russian investors,” he added.

Deal with the FSB

Despite not being blocked, Telegram remains in the telecommunication services registry. The messenger is obliged to store users’ messages and allow the authorities to access them on-demand as stipulated in the country’s Yarovaya law.

MaxBytes’s Sergey Prilutskiy suggested that law enforcement may have offered Durov a compromise to build “Russia’s global network platform that would be as good as those made by the world’s giants.”

In August 2018, Telegram’s user agreement was amended to include a claim about handing over phone numbers and IP addresses of users suspected in terrorism if there’s a respective court ruling.

Roskomsvoboda’s Stanislav Shakirov is confident that the messenger won’t break its own privacy policy. He explained that Telegram will cooperate with the FSB when it comes to terrorism suspects, but not in other cases and not with disclosing it. Stanislav noted that to do so would be a reputational suicide for Pavel Durov, which isn’t likely to be a part of his plans.

Pavel Durov himself has also claimed that Telegram users’ personal information will remain secure.

Telegram Sold

Another version suggests that the relief may be related to the sale of the company to an oligarch or a TON investor close to the authorities.

The list of investors includes entities tied to billionaires Roman Abramovich and Mikhail Abyzov; the Gutseriyev family; co-founder of Wimm-Bill-Dann, one of Russia’s largest companies, David Yakobashvili; and Qiwi CEO Sergey Solonin.

Telegram channel NADNAMI suggested that one of the most likely buyers is Alisher Usmanov who acquired VKontakte social network in 2014 for about $20 million (1.47 billion rubles). After that, Durov and his team had to leave Russia.

Former director of special projects at Telegram Anton Rosenberg noted that Durov doesn’t like investors and if he would sell the company, he would sell the controlling interest.

Only Pavel Durov himself can prove any of these theories right or wrong. As of now, the only thing he did was to call the Digital Resistance proponents to keep on fighting against political censorship.

This is the adaptation of the original Russian-language article published on ForkLog. Some of the sources are only available in Russian.

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