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WhatsApp and Telegram are two of the last remaining social media apps in Russia. And while the chances of the Kremlin suppressing them are unlikely, it is not impossible.

After Facebook’s parent company Meta said it would allow posts calling for violence against Russian soldiers, the country blocked access to Facebook and Instagram. A Russian court later found Meta guilty of “extremist” activities. Twitter was also lightly blocked in the country. Now, WhatsApp and Telegram are two of the latest apps standing.

In August 2021, around 38 million Russians used Telegram, while nearly 77 million Russians were on WhatsApp, according to data from Statista. These numbers are likely much higher following the banning of Instagram and Facebook. WhatsApp probably hasn’t been banned yet due to its popularity: it’s the most used messaging app in the country, and Russians don’t really have an alternative to the platform (although the country is apparently trying to make ICQ Messenger a new thing). Russia, in particular, doesn’t seem too concerned about people using WhatsApp for mass communication or news gathering. When a Russian court declared Meta “extremist,” it said, “The ruling does not apply to the activities of Meta’s messenger, WhatsApp, due to its lack of functionality for public dissemination of information.

According to Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Russia’s intention to block platforms used for mass communication means that WhatsApp is practically at the bottom of the priority list for a possible ban. If Russia did deciding to ban another platform, Telegram would likely be first on the chopping block. It has received significantly more internet traffic than WhatsApp in recent weeks (although more people are using WhatsApp overall), and it offers public channels that enable mass communication. But Galperin said a ban on Telegram is unlikely to happen either, as it is used by Kremlin-backed accounts.

“It’s just not very high on Russia’s list of priorities; they have a whole bunch of other things to block first,” Galperin said, pointing to Twitter and censorship circumvention technologies.

Telegram’s complicated history with the Russian government is another reason it’s likely to stick around. Russia banned Telegram in 2018 after the platform refused to hand over its encryption keys, which the country said were needed to monitor potential terrorist activity. He took Telegram to court over the matter, but the ban was lifted two years later after Telegram expressed its “willingness” to help the country fight terrorism and extremism.

“There are all sorts of speculations and rumors going around about Telegram cooperating with the Russian government and providing them with data,” said Natalia Krapiva, technical and legal adviser at Access Now, a civil rights nonprofit. . The group published an open letter to Telegram in December calling on the platform to create better security measures, such as implementing end-to-end encryption by default to protect human rights leaders.

“And that’s why Telegram won’t be affected,” Krapiva said. She added that Telegram’s chats are also not end-to-end encrypted by default, leading to speculation that the Russian government may be pressuring Telegram to hand over available user information.

With Telegram widely used by Russian citizens, government officials and news outlets, there might be more room for a platform like WhatsApp to fly under the radar for users to speak out against the Russian government, Krapiva said. Take Lebanon for example: when the country approved a tax hike on the platform in 2019, one protester noted that WhatsApp was their only way to “ventilate our frustrations”. In Sudan, the platform emerged as a way for people to express dissent against their government.

The Russian government doesn’t like this kind of resistance, and they arrest anyone who tries to fight back. A law in Russia that went into effect earlier this month has made independent war reporting and anti-war protests illegal. Thousands of people in Russia have been arrested for anti-war actions, according to OVD-Info.

If Russian officials realize that people are using WhatsApp to denounce the country — although it would be nothing more than a sentiment, because WhatsApp is encrypted — Krapiva said that could also lead to the country cutting off access. to the platform. . But again, this is unlikely to happen as Russians primarily use WhatsApp to communicate with friends and family and seek privacy, not to organize uprisings.

“This public organization has now been largely extinguished, so you can’t really openly call on people to protest,” Krapiva said. “Now we see more and more informal organizations happening. If the government sees more evidence that this kind of organizing activity is happening quietly on these platforms, it could give them reason to sue. [WhatsApp].”

Russia could still choose to ban both WhatsApp and Telegram, regardless of its current reasons for allowing them. The country is heading towards a so-called “splinternet”, which refers to Russia’s increased digital distance from the rest of the world, faster than ever. Alena Epifanova, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said Russia would only remove more platforms if the war escalated.

“I can imagine they’re going to turn off everything they can’t control,” Epifanova told Protocol.

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