Bulletins

WhatsApp and Telegram have escaped Russia's ban-hammer — for now

With Instagram and Facebook outlawed, Russians have few remaining social media options.

Telegram and WhatsApp logos

WhatsApp and Telegram are two of the last communication apps standing in Russia.

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

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.

Latest Bulletins

Quality assurance testers at Call of Duty studio Raven Software have voted overwhelmingly to form a union with the Communications Workers of America, marking a historic labor victory for the video game industry. The vote, with the Milwaukee office of the National Labor Relations Board, was 19-3.

Keep Reading Show less

Federal labor prosecutors in California plan to file a complaint against Activision Blizzard for illegally threatening workers if the company doesn't agree to a settlement, according to National Labor Relations Board spokesperson Kayla Blado.

Keep Reading Show less

Swedish "buy now, pay later" company Klarna is laying off 10% of its workforce, CEO Sebastian Siemiatkowski told staff via a pre-recorded video call Monday. Interest in pay-later products has sagged somewhat as consumers have felt more financially strapped and advocates in the U.S. began investigating the deferred payment plans last year. Klarna has reportedly been looking for more funding, potentially at a lower valuation.

Keep Reading Show less

The New York State Common Retirement Fund, one of the nation’s largest pension funds, announced that it will vote to remove all of Twitter’s directors at this week’s annual shareholder meeting. The vote against the directors is unlikely to result in change, but it shows mounting institutional pressure for Twitter to resist Elon Musk’s vision for relaxed content moderation policies.

Keep Reading Show less

Apple is looking to boost global production outside of China as the country’s "zero-COVID" strategy cripples production facilities, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The strict lockdown, which has been described by the WHO as "not sustainable," has shut down large cities, including Shanghai, as the highly infectious omicron variant spreads.

Keep Reading Show less

As the Supreme Court weighs whether to block Texas' social media "censorship" law, a court of appeals has decided to uphold the injunction on a similar Florida law, finding that social media companies "are 'private actors' whose rights the First Amendment protects."

Keep Reading Show less

GameStop is all about Web3: The company announced on Monday that it will launch a digital wallet for crypto and NFTs.

The GameStop wallet can be used across apps without users needing to leave their browsers, the company said in a statement. The self-custodial Ethereum wallet gives users access to the keys to their digital assets rather than trusting them with a third party, and is available for download as an extension on Google Chrome's web store as well as on web browser Brave. The wallet will also be available as an iPhone app down the line, according to the GameStop wallet website. The wallet uses Loopring for transactions, a Layer 2 solution that's meant to lower transaction fees.

Keep Reading Show less

D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine is suing Mark Zuckerberg, alleging the Meta CEO was responsible for decisions that opened the door for the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Keep Reading Show less

The U.K.'s Information Commissioner’s Office, the country's privacy watchdog, has ordered facial recognition company Clearview AI to delete all data belonging to the country's residents.

Keep Reading Show less

Meta will finally give researchers access to targeting data for political ads — information that academics have been clamoring for and using legally risky workarounds to collect on their own for years.

Keep Reading Show less

Coinbase just celebrated its 10th birthday. And the crypto powerhouse marked the milestone on a defiant note, with a snarky TV ad clapping back at crypto bashers.

Keep Reading Show less

Google is allowing some Android apps to use their own payment systems after getting into battles with both Match Group and Epic Games' Bandcamp, but the move might be temporary. The company is facing legal action for requiring apps in the Google Play Store to use its billing, and the interim solution Google came up with is to let those apps use their own payments — with a catch.

Keep Reading Show less

Larry Ellison was among the participants on a call in November 2020, during which top Trump allies discussed ways to contest the election results, according to The Washington Post. It's unclear what role Ellison played on the call, but The Post found evidence of Ellison's apparent involvement in court records and confirmed with one of the call's other participants.

Keep Reading Show less

Microsoft Bing has exported Chinese censorship abroad, according to a new report by The University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.

Bing searches for national figures, leaders within the Chinese Communist Party, dissidents and topics that Beijing considers politically sensitive did not appear in auto-suggest in North America, according to the report. Among the search terms that didn't generate autocomplete suggestions were searches for President Xi Jinping, the late human rights activist Liu Xiaobo and searches related to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Keep Reading Show less

Google had its "best year yet" for hiring Black and Latinx employees in the U.S. as well as women globally, according to its 2022 Diversity Annual Report. The hiring rate increased for Black, Latinx, Native American and female employees, although these identities are still very underrepresented compared to white and male employees.

Keep Reading Show less

Tech companies are figuring out how to handle the upcoming historic Supreme Court decision that could overturn abortion rights. In the case of Meta, that includes telling employees to not talk about it at work. Meta VP of HR Janelle Gale told workers during an all-hands on Thursday not to talk about abortion on Workplace, the company's internal messaging platform.

Keep Reading Show less

As many tech companies face a slump and crypto looks set for a deep freeze, Coinbase is facing reality and hitting the brakes on spending. The company is halting some business projects, freezing hiring for two weeks and cutting its spending on Amazon Web Services, the Information reported Thursday.

Keep Reading Show less

AWS reached a private settlement with a female employee who accused now-former executive Joshua Burgin of discrimination and harrasement, Protocol has learned.

Keep Reading Show less

The Federal Trade Commission on Thursday unanimously reminded providers of education technology to follow federal limits on the collection and use of kids' data in an attempt to ensure that common practices in the data economy don't become the norm in schools.

Keep Reading Show less

The apocalypse is coming, at least according to one of the world's biggest startup accelerators.

Y Combinator sent an email to portfolio founders this week, obtained by TechCrunch, advising the startups to "plan for the worst" as the market turbulence has prompted many companies to initiate layoffs, cost-cutting measures and hiring slowdowns.

Keep Reading Show less

Apple just hit an important milestone in developing its mixed-reality headset as rivals like Meta are making strides in developing similar devices. Executives showed off an AR/VR device to Apple's board last week, according to Bloomberg, a sign that the product is really happening and it's inching closer to a public launch.

Keep Reading Show less

The SEC is pushing back on Ripple’s bid for access to emails and other documents that the crypto giant believes could bolster its case against the regulator.

The SEC, which sued Ripple in 2020 for failing to register $1.4 billion worth of XRP as securities, has refused to release emails related to a 2018 speech by former director William Hinman in which he argued the ether cryptocurrency was not a security. The speech sparked a rally in ether’s price and was interpreted as an endorsement of the industry’s view that cryptocurrencies are not securities.

Keep Reading Show less

Tesla’s autopilot system is being investigated by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration following a fatal crash in California that killed three passengers this month. It is the 35th accident the agency has investigated since 2016 related to Tesla's Autopilot feature, according to Reuters. Those accidents have resulted in a total of 14 deaths.

Keep Reading Show less

Google has reportedly pulled out of Russia, and many employees there have moved to Dubai.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that most of Google’s Russia-based employees had chosen to leave the country, and that the company will soon have no workforce presence in Russia amid the country’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

Keep Reading Show less

Add lawmakers to the growing list of people, companies and trade groups that are ticked off about the Commerce Department’s solar probe.

This week, a collection of 85 House Democrats wrote to the White House saying that they're concerned “about the devastating economic and environmental impacts” of the probe, which began in April and has already had already stunted the clean energy transition in the U.S. While the probe has not resulted in any changes to the U.S. tariff structure so far, the chance that it could has the industry upset. Lawmakers have heard those concerns, and they're turning up the pressure on the Biden administration to wrap the probe up as quickly as possible.

Keep Reading Show less
Bulletins