By Patrick Brogan
Information is pivotal to any functioning democracy. A sign of a healthy democracy is when information is freely transferred between citizens. If you ever wondered why countries like Russia and China are often criticised in the West for a lack of human rights, this is one of the key reasons. Both have a long history of repressing their own people sharing information amongst themselves, a trend that has continued into the present. Unfortunately, they are not alone in this horrific habit.
Major Russian cities like Moscow and St Petersburg saw protesters flying paper aeroplanes. A strange sight, but one many Russians feel was necessary. So, what was this all about? Many countries outside of the Western hemisphere use a messaging app called Telegram. The company uses a paper plane as its logo. This was created by Russian brothers Pavel and Nikolai Durov and has millions and millions of daily users globally. This is such an effective app that even WhatsApp has ‘borrowed’ some of its features.
As a Russian creation, it is not surprising to know that it is very popular in the motherland with as many as 13 million users. In April, Putin’s Government started a massive clamp down and shutting down of this service. Russian authorities closed off 20 million IP address and in the process blocked many companies’ sites as well as some of their own official ones. There was a blanket ban on many sides. Why was there such extreme measures taken?
In the National Interest
Moscow claims it took this course to protect national security. Have we seen this excuse to erode civil liberties used before? To be fair, ISIS has been known to use the app in the past. Telegram closed these accounts, but would not change the privacy settings or handover any other information to the Russian Government. And this really gets to the crux of the issue; Telegram uses encrypted data and the Russian Government can’t get their hands on it.
The Durov brothers promised that the data sent by users could not be viewed by Moscow surveillance agencies or any third parties. Pavel Durov and Putin also have some history. Durov is known as the Russian Mark Zuckerberg as he created a Russian social media site called VKontakte (VT).
The Russian premiére wanted the VT accounts of political dissidents closed down and Pavel not so politely refused. What followed was a prolonged period of harassment of Durov which eventually led to his exile. At this time, Durov realised he could not send any secure messages to his brother and this was to the backdrop of Edward Snowden’s revelations about government surveillance. Thus, the app was born.
Moscow demanding the Telegram encrpytion keys and the subsquent refusal is what led to the extreme measures. This is why the Russian people have taken to the streets in their thousands, accompanied by their paper aeroplanes, Big Brother posters and banners saying; “Things are so bad that even introverts are here”. One of the Russian people’s must enamouring traits; being able to retain a sense of humor in a crisis. The most ironic thing about all this is these actions have made Telegram more popular than ever.
Indeed, Russia is not alone in its blanket ban of this app. Iran had a similar reaction after the protests of 2017/18. Initially, these protests started for economic reasons. The Iran Government cancelled a longstanding stipend to its citizens. The Iranians took to the streets in frustration over this, but soon the movment changed and even the position of the Supreme Leader was suddenly being questioned. Many of these rallies were organised through Telegram through some of its 40 million users in the Islamic Republic.
Not suprisingly, many social media platforms, including Instagram, were temporarily banned, but the most ire was saved for Telegram, which got an outright ban and the Iranian Government replaced this with a state-run service called Soroush. Obviously, Tehran can access any information on this service it so desires. All for national security, of course. The app, which takes its name from a Persian messenger angel, is complete with death to America and anti-Israeli emojis. Wow.
Pakistan has also banned the app, as has China. Both gave no particular reason for doing so. In 2015, Telegram‘s Asia Pacific servers were attacked with many believing it was a state-run effort by China. China is not too keen on foreign apps, including WhatsApp. Which brings us nicely to our next topic.
WhatsApp has been banned in Brazil a few times. A judge banned it because they would not hand over texts relating to a criminal investigation just outside of Rio. The other times it was banned were for similar reasons and the decision was usually reversed immediately after because judges felt it was unfair to penalise millions of people for the faults of the company. However, in these cases I can understand why the Brazilain authorities were frustated, unlike the previous examples mentioned.
Kazakhstan probably has the most draconian laws relating to social media. After Land Reform protests between 2015/16, many platforms were banned. Now, anonymous comments are banned and users have to register their details so everyone knows who is making the comments. By that, I mean the Government knows.
The Western World
While we might complain about limitations of freedom in Europe and North America, at least we are not subject to these widespread blanket bans. While Internet freedoms are constantly under attack from paranoid governments and greedy corporations, as a society we have kept them at bay for now. What’s to stop this from changing, though? For this reason, I would urge people to look into encrypted data and Virtual Private Networks. Would you trust your government or mega-corporations with your information? No, I thought not.
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