Last week, President Vladimir Putin declared war on the Russian internet.
The Kremlin had been slowly and quietly encroaching on freedom of the internet in Russia for a while now, but this time it went all out: State institutions were mobilised to block access to one of the most popular Russian messenger apps, Telegram.
The creator of Telegram – 33-year-old Pavel Durov, also known as “the Russian Zuckerberg” – gained fame for setting up the Russian social network Vkontakte shortly after Facebook was launched. It became the most popular social network in Russia in just a few years.
In 2014, Durov was forced to resign as a CEO of Vkontakte. He publicly accused the FSB of pressuring him and claimed that the security agency demanded from him the personal data of Euromaidan protest organisers in Ukraine.
His conflict with the FSB and his commitment to defending user privacy made Telegram popular. Durov created an app that very much defies oppressive governments that seek to spy on their citizens.
When the Russian Duma passed legislation making it mandatory for messenger apps to hand over encryption keys, it became clear that a war over freedom of the internet was inevitable, and that Telegram would be leading the fight.
The Russian constitution clearly guarantees the privacy of correspondence. Using this as an argument, Telegram’s lawyers tried to challenge legislation that allowed the FSB to have direct access to users’ messages, but Russian courts took the side of the executive. And so the war began.
It seems that the Kremlin had planned a blitzkrieg and hoped that it would finish the mission quickly and without much noise, as happened when LinkedIn was blocked in 2016 (back then there wasn’t much noise because the service wasn’t that popular in Russia). But, this time, it didn’t go that smoothly.
On April 16, the Russian communications censor, Roskomnadzor, started blocking Telegram. More than 18 million IP addresses were blocked, more than the number of Telegram users in Russia. Some of these IP addresses belonged to Microsoft, Amazon and Google cloud services, which led to disruptions in the online services of dozens of companies, including banks, online shops, online payment websites, other messenger apps and even the Moscow Kremlin Museum. Ironically, Telegram continued to work.
Throughout last week, Roskomnadzor continued to block new IP addresses and issue angry statements to the press, claiming that it had “degraded 30 percent of Telegram’s service”. The app not only continued to work, but it also received a record number of new users.
What’s more, blocking the app encouraged Russian users to start using virtual private networks (VPNs). Just 10 days ago, the average lazy Russian user would have deemed a VPN too complicated to set up, but today, discussions about VPN services can be found even on young moms’ forums, while elderly users are asking their grandchildren to set up “that thing” for them.
To the dismay of Roskomnadzor, now there are all these Russian internet users who don’t have to worry about Telegram being blocked and who will read all the other websites the censor has been blocking too. Even Edward Snowden, the American whistle-blower who is still hiding in Russia, took Durov’s side and tweeted in his support.
I have criticized @telegram's security model in the past, but @Durov's response to the Russian government's totalitarian demand for backdoor access to private communications—refusal and resistance—is the only moral response, and shows real leadership. https://t.co/KtZDpu33wh
— Edward Snowden (@Snowden) April 17, 2018
In other words, this was not just a defeat for the Russian authorities; it was an embarrassing disaster. The Russian political leadership – dominated by 60-something-year-olds who rarely use the internet – must not have known that imposing control over the internet is not the same as taking control of TV.
Controlling the internet is a very difficult and expensive task. China, which in recent years has become a model for President Putin, has partially managed to solve this problem by establishing the Great Firewall – a technological wonder, just like the Great Wall.
But Russia is not China. Here is a simple illustration of that fact: China is building 3,500km of highspeed railways every year; Russia plans to build 4,000km of such railways in 10 years (and it’s still unclear whether it will succeed in doing so).
Perhaps it's too difficult for Putin to watch how slowly, click by click, tweet by tweet, he's losing control over the country.
Censoring the internet is a very difficult task, much more complicated than building railways, especially when the state has to face off with some of the best Russian programmers out there.
What’s more, there are technological developments elsewhere that will soon make that task even more difficult. There’s Google’s Jigsaw, a technology incubator, which is meant among other things to support freedom of expression and which has already released some tools allowing the circumvention of state censorship. There’s also Elon Musk’s Starlink project, which could provide global access to the internet through a network of satellites. Trying to impose internet censorship in the future will be almost impossible, even for countries like China.
The war for free access to information in Russia is crucial for the state. For 18 years, Russian authorities have been relying on control of TV channels to spread propaganda. When Putin came to power in 2000, only two percent of the population used the internet, but today this number has reached 75 percent. What’s more, the young generation doesn’t watch TV, and that is why it’s not surprising that 20-something-year-olds constitute such a big part of protest movements.
The internet war will continue for some time. Up next are Facebook and Twitter. But whatever battles Putin manages to win, he will not claim victory in the end. He will also continue to lose popularity with that 75 percent of the population using the internet.
Indeed, it would be sensible for him to give in and not make matters worse, to just leave the internet alone. But perhaps it’s too difficult for Putin to watch how slowly, click by click, tweet by tweet, he’s losing control over the country.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.