WhatsApp and Telegram are two of the last social media apps remaining in Russia. And while the odds that the Kremlin cracks down on them are unlikely, it’s not impossible.
After Facebook parent company Meta said it would allow posts calling for violence against Russian soldiers, the country blocked access to both Facebook and Instagram. A Russian court later declared Meta guilty of “extremist” activities. Twitter has also been soft blocked in the country. Now, WhatsApp and Telegram are two of the last apps standing.
As of August 2021, around 38 million Russians were using Telegram, while close to 77 million Russians were on WhatsApp, according to data from Statista. Those numbers are presumably much higher in the wake of Instagram and Facebook’s ban. WhatsApp likely hasn’t been banned yet due to its popularity: It’s the most widely-used messaging app in the country, and Russians don’t really have an alternative to the platform (although the country is reportedly trying to make ICQ messenger a thing again). Russia more notably doesn’t seem too concerned about people using WhatsApp for mass communication or information gathering. When a Russian court declared Meta “extremist,” it said: “The decision does not apply to the activities of Meta's messenger WhatsApp, due to its lack of functionality for the public dissemination of information.”
Russia’s intention to block platforms used for mass communication means that WhatsApp is pretty much at the bottom of the priority list for a potential ban, according to Eva Galperin, the director of Cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. If Russia did decide to ban another platform, Telegram would likely be first on the chopping block. It’s gotten way more internet traffic than WhatsApp in recent weeks (although more people use WhatsApp overall), and it offers public-facing channels that allow for mass communication. But Galperin said a ban on Telegram probably won’t happen either, because it’s being used by Kremlin-backed accounts.
“This is just not very high on Russia's list of priorities; they've got a whole bunch of other stuff to block first,” Galperin said, pointing to Twitter and censorship circumvention technologies.
Telegram’s complicated history with the Russian government is another reason why it’s likely to stick around. Russia banned Telegram in 2018 after the platform refused to hand over its encryption keys, which the country argued were needed to monitor potential terrorist activity. It took Telegram to court over the issue, but the ban was lifted two years later after Telegram expressed “willingness” to help the country fight terrorism and extremism.
“There are all kinds of speculations and rumors circulating about Telegram cooperating with the Russian government and giving them data,” said Natalia Krapiva, a tech-legal counsel at civil rights nonprofit Access Now. The group published an open letter to Telegram in December calling on the platform to create better safety measures, like implementing end-to-end encryption by default to protect human rights leaders.
“Recently, there was a government official kind of hinting that Telegram is providing information about terrorists, and that's why Telegram may not be touched,” Krapiva said. Telegram has also refuted those remarks. She added that Telegram’s chats also aren’t end-to-end encrypted by default, which has led to speculation that the Russian government could press Telegram to hand over available user information.
With Telegram being widely used by Russian citizens, government officials and news organizations alike, there could be more room for a platform like WhatsApp to slide under the radar for users to speak out against the Russian government, Krapiva said. Take Lebanon as an example: When the country approved a tax hike on the platform in 2019, one protester noted that WhatsApp is their only way to “vent our frustrations.” In Sudan, the platform emerged as a way for people to voice their dissent against their government.
The Russian government doesn’t like that kind of resistance, and it’s arresting anyone who tries to pick a fight. A law in Russia that went into effect earlier this month made independent war reporting and protests against the war illegal. Thousands of people in Russia have been arrested for anti-war actions, according to OVD-Info.
If Russian officials pick up on the fact that people are using WhatsApp to speak out against the country, Krapiva said that could also lead the country to cut off access to the platform. But again, that’s unlikely to happen because Russians mostly use WhatsApp to communicate with friends and family and seek privacy — not to organize uprisings.
“That public organizing has now been largely extinguished, so you cannot really openly call people for protests,” Krapiva said. “Now, we are seeing more and more informal organizing happening. If the government sees more evidence of those kinds of organizing activities happening quietly on these platforms, that might give them a reason to go after [WhatsApp].”
Russia could always choose to ban both WhatsApp and Telegram, regardless of its current reasons for allowing them. The country is moving toward a so-called “splinternet,” which refers to Russia’s increased digital distance from the rest of the world, faster than ever. Alena Epifanova, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said Russia would only do away with more platforms if the war escalates.
“I can imagine they will shut off everything that they can’t control,” Epifanova told Protocol.
This story was updated March 28 to clarify Natalia Krapiva's quote about Telegram.