Russia’s internet watchdog has blocked an estimated 16m IP addresses in a massive operation against the banned Telegram messaging app that could set a new precedent for Russian online censorship.
The “battle for Telegram” pits one of Russia’s most popular messaging apps – with more than 13 million users – against the internet censor Roskomnadzor, in a public cat-and-mouse game to block traffic that has put the agency’s reputation on the line.
Telegram is widely used by the Russian political establishment, and prominent politicians and officials have openly flouted or criticised the ban. Data from the app showed several Kremlin officials had continued to sign in on Tuesday evening, four days after a court ordered the service to be blocked over alleged terrorism concerns.
The watchdog agency was granted authority to block the app on Friday by a Moscow court. But the clumsy, unprecedented effort to follow through, which started Monday, caused a widespread outcry after the unintended consequences became apparent.
Internet experts in Russia saw a greater menace in the effort beyond Telegram, speculating that if the government succeeded in silencing the app with some 13 million Russian users, it might pursue bigger fish next.
Telegram tried to thwart the blockage by shifting its service to two giant American web hosts, Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services, while at the same time repeatedly changing its IP address to skip ahead of Roskomnadzor.
In response, rather than chasing individual IP addresses — a unique set of numbers that identifies a computer, smartphone or other device connected to the internet — the watchdog agency elected to shut down enormous blocks of addresses, called subnets.
The collateral damage hit a variety of other sites, like Viber, another messaging app, as well as small businesses including a language school and a courier service, all of which suffered financial losses.
Volvo dealerships could not access their service records, according to press reports, and Kremlin museums had to suspend ticket sales. Roskomnadzor said it unblocked individual sites as soon as the agency became aware of a problem.
The Agora group of human rights lawyers, which represents Telegram in Russian courts, said in a statement that it had received 73 complaints about blocked websites. The organization planned to file a formal complaint with the prosecutor general’s office.
Telegram has been sending messages to users encouraging them to use alternative means, including Virtual Private Networks, which effectively connect to the internet outside Russia, to evade the ban.
The app’s founder, Pavel Durov, sent a message to Telegram users saying that he would continue to engage in “digital resistance.
“Despite the ban, we haven’t seen a significant drop in user engagement so far, since Russians tend to bypass the ban with VPNs and proxies,” Durov wrote.