In mid-April, it was exactly one year since the Tagansky Court of Moscow decided to immediately block Telegram due to the fundamental refusal of Pavel Durov and his developers to provide the Russian special services with encryption keys and access to user correspondence.
I propose today to take stock of the past year and consider how the messenger ecosystem has changed in the Russian-speaking space, and most importantly, to answer the question whether the blocking had any effect on the development of Telegram in Russia.
Let's get started!
This applies not only to the Russian security agencies, but also to any others. However, the @Transparency channel, which is supposed to publish reports on users issued to the special services, still does not appear a single message. Pavel Durov himself reported that as of March 1, 2019, no special service had made such a request to Telegram.
Blocking and bypass tools
Roskomnadzor, which is in charge of blocking Telegram, has not developed a working and systemic algorithm for a year with which it would be possible to effectively block the messenger. According to various sources, the department does this almost in manual mode, to the point that RKN employees independently calculate the IP addresses of Telegram servers, and also look for links to proxy servers published on the Runet. A couple of months after the blocking began, Roskomnadzor at least stopped hitting sparrows with a cannon, simultaneously shutting down completely legal and innocent online services, and thanks for that.
The intensity of blockages is unstable; at one time ILV can allocate more resources for this, at another – less. Sometimes Telegram works without problems without using blocking bypass tools, and sometimes there are problems even with a proxy. By the way, in the first weeks of April, the intensity of blocking increased, many proxy server owners began to experience a shortage of free IP addresses to ensure their smooth operation.
For a long time, RKN fought only with the IP addresses of Telegram and proxy servers, paying absolutely no attention to VPN services, despite the law No. 276-FZ, which, from November 1, 2017, obliged all VPN services to block access to information prohibited by RKN. Probably, the department dragged on for so long because of the bureaucratic nature of the procedure: only those services that are connected to the FSIS (Federal State Information System) are required to fulfill the requirement, but the RKN has no right to initiate connection to it, initially it must receive an appropriate order from the FSB or another body engaged in operational-search activities.
Movements in this direction began only at the end of March 2019, when the RKN sent out a request to connect to the FSIS for the first ten VPN services. By the way, only one of the services belonging to Kaspersky Lab agreed to cooperate with the agency, the rest either refused or ignored the request altogether. By the way, many popular services did not make it to the list of the first ten, and it is still unknown when it will be their turn.
To conclude the conversation about blocking and its effectiveness, I will cite the survey data carried out by the Telegram Analytics service: about half of users do not experience problems with Telegram, without using tools to bypass blocking.
Telegram ecosystem and economy development
The most interesting thing in this whole story is how the messenger has developed in Russia and the Russian-speaking segment all this year. I sincerely tried to find at least one metric that could say that the blocking at least affected something in the negative, but I could not find one. But let's talk about everything in order.
Messenger audience. RBC recently cited statistics from MediaScope, which shows that Telegram is still the third after WhatsApp and Viber in Russia. Its daily audience is 4.4 million (as of February 2019). Before all this hype in October 2017, Telegram had exactly half the number of daily users – 2.2 million people. At the peak of attention to Telegram in April 2018, the audience reached 3.7 million, declined in the summer, but by the end of the year it confidently crossed the threshold of 4 million users.
As for the monthly audience of the messenger, it is 10.9 million people (at the end of 2017 – 7.2 million people). The average time of using the messenger remained at the level of 7 minutes a day.
Coverage and audience of Telegram channels. Telegram has long become not just a messenger, but also, thanks to its numerous channels, a convenient tool for consuming all kinds of content. According to Medialogia, the average reach per post in the top 30 most popular channels in February 2019 ranged from 68,300 to 408,000 views. A year earlier, the same value varied from 48,700 to 236,300. This growth shows not only an increase in the audience, but also an increase in the depth of use of the messenger.
The number of subscribers also increased significantly: many large and established channels by the beginning of 2018, despite the blocking, showed an annual growth of the audience by 1.5-2.5 times.
Other interesting numbers. Some interesting figures are given by the analytical service Telemetr. So, for example, over the past year:
- the number of channels in Russian has doubled, the audience of which exceeds 500 subscribers (there were about 25 thousand, now about 50 thousand);
- the number of entries on channels has also doubled from 90 thousand to 200 thousand;
- the total coverage of posts in these channels has grown by one and a half times – from 570 to 900 million;
- the dynamics of the emergence of new interesting channels (exceeding the threshold of 500 subscribers) has grown from 20-30 channels to 35-50 channels per day;
- the most impressive growth in the Telegram advertising market – 51,000 advertisements in Russian per day now versus 15,000 entries a year ago, while the established price in entertainment channels was about 300 rubles per 1,000 views (a year ago, prices could skyrocket to 1 000 rubles).
If nothing supernatural happens, then on November 1, 2019, the law 'On Sovereign Runet' will come into force. Telegram, if it did not become the root cause of this bill, is definitely the catalyst – too many, actively and publicly made fun of Roskomnadzor and our state in general about the 'effectiveness' of blocking. Perhaps many of us should have been more restrained in order for everything to work out the same as with the popular torrent trackers a few years earlier. Then Roskomnadzor and the providers honestly and calmly did their job – they blacklisted and blocked them on the territory of the Russian Federation, and users also calmly began to use VPNs, proxies and browser extensions, without attracting too much attention. Everyone is calm, everything works. In the case of Telegram, a serious question arose about the viability of the state in enforcing the laws it adopted. They say that jokes about the messenger and the state have seriously offended the feelings of the top echelon officials, and now they are ready to do anything to stop Telegram in Russia.
Under the law 'On Sovereign Runet', operators will be obliged to install special hardware and software systems, part of which will be the DPI (Deep Packet Inspection) system. Technically, it allows you to analyze all traffic passing through the operator, find in it the packets characteristic of one or another online service, and then block them. The first tests of DPI systems were carried out in August 2018 at the Rostelecom test laboratory. Having tested 7 different solutions from Russian companies, Roskomnadzor settled on a solution from RDP.RU (15% of the company belongs to the Rostelecom venture fund), which will subsequently be installed on the operators' equipment. In the near future, the department plans to conduct larger-scale tests, which will involve the operators of the Big Three.
It is DPI that should become the main weapon in the fight against Telegram, but so far there is no data on its effectiveness when working with such 'tricky' services. I think that for the developers of the messenger, bypassing the DPI blocking will be a matter of principle, and the same cat and mouse will begin as in the case of IP addresses, only the scale and consequences may be more serious. According to the ex-director of special areas of Telegram Anton Rosenberg, DPI can only complicate the life of the messenger, but it will not work to completely block it, since Telegram is able to mask its traffic.
In any case, Roskomnadzor relies heavily on DPI, but along the way, it will most likely clean up the list of VPN services available in Russia, from time to time sending out a request to connect to the FSIS. What effect this practice will have on Telegram is not yet clear. But something else is absolutely clear – the RKN and the state, against the background of the fight against Durov's messenger, are emerging with serious instruments of influence on the Russian segment of the Web, which will be legally consolidated by the law 'On Sovereign Runet'. Firstly, not every service has so many resources to resist blocking, so no one will talk to less principled developers – either you do as we want, or we disconnect you from the Russian Internet. Secondly, the widespread adoption of DPI can potentially violate the principle of network neutrality, that is, operators and the state will be able to regulate the speed of operation of certain resources, for example, by limiting the speed of access to disgraced resources and social networks.
The year of blocking Telegram in Russia did not affect the messenger itself in any way – the audience grew, and the ecosystem developed rapidly, despite even minor sticks in the wheels, which Roskomnadzor put in at random intervals. However, officials, meanwhile, have prepared an extensive set of measures to combat the independence of the Network, for which, after a slap in the face from Telegram, they do not spare any money. This law is strange, unpopular, in many places vague, does not establish responsibility for anyone for disruptions in the work of the Network, adopted in a hurry and without proper elaboration. But this is the reality in which we will all very soon find ourselves, with the 'Russian firewall' and the 'autonomous internet'. And whether Telegram will work in it is still unknown for sure.