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The founder of popular messaging app Telegram has said he is prepared to register with Russian censors, in an apparent climbdown in response to threats to block the service.
Pavel Durov, who left Russia in 2013 to found Telegram with the proceeds from selling his social network VK, said on Wednesday he would comply with requests from Russia’s communications watchdog.
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Though the required data are already openly available on the UK’s Companies House corporate database, the move is a significant victory for Russia’s censors, who are trying to force foreign-based companies to comply with draconian local laws that mean giving secret services broad access to user data.
Roscomnadzor, Russia’s communications watchdog, had made several threats in the past week to block Telegram over Mr Durov’s refusal to sign up to its “registry of information distribution organisers”.
After Mr Durov dismissed the watchdog’s demands, Russian state TV ran several stories using footage supplied by secret service agencies to imply that Telegram, which has more than 100m monthly users worldwide, was allowing terrorists and drug dealers to act with impunity through its secure messaging service.
The FSB, the KGB’s successor agency, said on Monday that Telegram was the most popular messaging app among terrorists, thanks to encrypted chat functions that allowed them to “hide their criminal plots”. Several officials said they would stop using the app, whose fans include Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman.
While many other countries — including the US and UK — have demanded that messaging services like Telegram and WhatsApp provide access to encrypted data, Russia’s legislation goes much further. A law passed last year mandates that all “information distribution organisers” store user data for six months and metadata for up to three years, while providing encryption keys to security services on request.
Mr Durov said Telegram would sign up to the database, but not comply with the law’s data retention requirements, which are considered so unworkable that they could bankrupt Russia’s mobile providers when they come into force next year.
Russia’s censors said the registration was an important step.
“We welcome his position,” Roscomnadzor chief Alexander Zharov told news agency Interfax. “I am sure that the other international communication services should do likewise. Following the laws of Russia is compulsory for all companies that work in Russian jurisdiction.”
“Everybody understand the rules of the game — once you start there is no way back,” said Andrei Soldatov, co-author of The Red Web, a history of Russia’s attempts to control the internet. “It’s just the beginning.”