Russia may lift ban on Telegram thanks to coronavirus

Russia’s Duma, the state government, instituted a ban on social messaging platform Telegram two years ago after it refused to turn over information related to its users and encryption keys to legislators. Despite the country-wide prohibition, lawmakers took a “do as I say, not as I do” approach and continued to use the application for their communications needs.

That activity has picked up even more as authorities around the globe try to figure out how to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and some lawmakers are now looking to have the ban officially lifted. It didn’t hurt that Telegram’s founder, Pavel Durov, has agreed to help the government spread the word about COVID-19 and the government’s initiatives to combat the virus.

Russian media outlet Kommersant reports that two Duma deputies, Fedot Tumusov and Dmitry Ionin, have drafted a bill that would, if approved, end the ineffective Telegram ban. It has already been sent to Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and the head of the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation, Maksut Shadayev, for their review and possible approval. The bill specifically calls for the removal of a ban blocking “official services for state bodies for the dissemination of information about the current situation during the period of the introduced high alert or emergency,” which the lawmakers admit refers to Telegram.

The bill adds, “In most cases, Telegram works for Russian users without any hindrance. There is a wide number of free services that allow [someone] to easily bypass the ban. Therefore, further declarative ban of the messenger is damaging the prestige of the authority of the State, not the development of Telegram.”

The ban against Telegram was justified by government officials because it could easily be used by terrorists and there was no way to monitor the platform’s channels for possible illicit activity. Telegram had reportedly been used by terrorists to launch an attack on a subway station in St. Petersburg in 2017. However, Durov asserted that providing the encryption keys was technically impossible and that to do so would violate Russia’s constitution. 

While Durov and Telegram continue to fight the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Durov isn’t holding a grudge and is using the platform to help disseminate information related to the coronavirus. He announced in a recent post on Telegram that is cooperating with government officials to promote 17 official news sources from 17 countries, adding, “The current pandemic is a threat to our entire species. When it ends, the world will not return to normal. We may witness a civilizational shift that will ripple through generations. It is up to all of us to ensure that the new world about to be born is a better place than the one we’re leaving behind.”

Prime Minister Mishustin and Minister Shadayev are said to have acknowledged receipt of the bill. However, they have not yet commented on whether or not its approval is forthcoming. 

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