In Uzbekistan, it’s even spawned a new form of farewell; Uzbeki users of the popular messaging app, Telegram now say Telegramlashamiz—call you soon.
Throughout the world, people are turning to Telegram, whether as a result of outages by rival Facebook, a desire to evade the authorities or simply because it’s a more cost-effective alternative to mobile messaging.
The app’s encrypted technology, which makes it possible for people to communicate without government snooping, has helped it amass a 200 million-plus user base. And, in Russia and Iran, countries that have tried to outlaw it (citing fears of terrorism and unrest,) users have not only circumvented a 2018 ban, but redoubled their efforts to get up the authorities’ nose.
On Thursday, ZDNet reported that a Telegram user leaked hacking tools used by Iran’s elite cyber-espionage unit on the messaging app, and doxed Iranian Ministry of Intelligence officers, posting the officers’ phone numbers, pictures and names.
Under the alias “Dookhtegan,” the user threatened the authorities with further exposure— and warned that he or she would wipe servers clean.
Banned but still big in Iran
It’s no accident that Persian-language channels dominate the list of Telegram’s most popular public channels, despite a ban that’s been in place in Iran for almost a year.
Users circumvent the ban by using Virtual Private Networks (VPN’s.) Telegram’s encryption and robust support for Farsi has attracted 40 million users—nearly half the country's population.
The app allows users to send private messages to contacts, create private groups of up to 200,000 members and public channels that can be accessed by anyone who’s downloaded the app.
But there are now signs that government agencies, including state-run TV and the presidency's press office, are quietly returning to Telegram.
Partly, that’s to do with its effectiveness in disseminating information during devastating floods that hit Iran in March and April, while Iranian state TV was criticized for failing to report on the floods and broadcasting exaggerated accounts of official aid to victims. Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that the courts will reverse the ban, despite high-ranking officials, including the president, speaking out against a failed censorship policy.
Reviled in Russia
In Russia, when authorities first sought to ban the app citing security concerns, widespread protests ensued.
Russians swiftly learned to use VPN’s to bypass the ban and, activists say that Telegram is used by pretty much everyone in Russia. Pavel Durov, the Russian exile who founded the app, is revered.
The government is now taking extreme measures to block the app; it’s threatening to “unplug” Russia from the Internet do so. Protest organizer, Mihail Svetov, told Decrypt (via Telegram!) that the controversial bill to cut off Russia’s Internet traffic from foreign servers is an attempt to trounce the messaging app for good: “Their inability to block Telegram last year is what convinced them to put the Internet under even tighter control,” he said.
But Durov has been “pro-active in resisting censorship and created a clever system of changing IP addresses that currently outsmarts the government ban,” says Svetov.
“Telegram is the last remaining secure messenger available to Russians today.”
Once signed into law, the Internet bill will go into effect on Nov. 1, enabling the government to control information and block messaging or other applications. But, until then, the app is helping activists to organize protests against the new law.
Russia and Iran are not the only countries attempting (and failing) to block Telegram. A user on Reddit’s privacy channel lists Bahrain, China, Indonesia and Pakistan as countries where the app is at least partially restricted..
Inciting hatred in India
India my soon join them. A major government initiative is clamping down on social media, which it blames for spreading fake news. Facebook-owned platform WhatsApp, has already been banned, when it was deemed responsible for false rumors that went viral and led to a string of mob lynchings.
In India, the availability of low-cost smartphones, along with a significant drop in the price of data plans in recent years, has made messaging apps popular. But analysts warn that the deeply intertwined religious and political beliefs—which make the country especially sensitive to rumors—are a veritable tinderbox when paired with social media.
Admired in Uzbekistan
In Uzbekistan, meanwhile, Telegram is freely available and more popular than the Internet itself. It’s the second-most downloaded application on iOS, after Instagram, and on Android after Shareit (an app to enable cross-platform sharing). Telegram’s Uzbek-language channels are eclipsed in number only by Persian ones.
Uzbeki’s use Telegram a forum for news, views and business activity. It’s instrumental in aiding the nation’s best-loved bloggers to expand audiences and monetise content, on a par to YouTube’s success in America and Europe. Uzbek companies, such as mobile operator Ucell, run advertising on Telegram and virtual shops are springing up on the network.
But Telegram has also become a forum for unprecedented levels of political discussion, following the easing of restrictions on free speech after the death of long-ruling leader Islam Karimov in 2016. Telegram has helped to expose the controversial activities of local and national government officials.
In 2017, for instance, as punishment for a poor harvest, farmers were made to stand in a ditch in front of officials, including the deputy prime minister. The images went viral, resulting in the removal of the deputy from his post.
Not kind in Kazakhstan
But in neighbouring Kazakhstan, while popular, Telegram is not quite as effective.
There, the government is borrowing from the playbook of authoritarian peers like Russia and Iran and cracking down on dissidents using Telegram to discuss politics, with some success.
The content of incriminating discussions can be as nebulous as insinuating that the president is guilty of nepotism.
“If you have Telegram on your phone, you are already a suspect,” activist Batyr Abayuli told news outlet, Eurasianet back in August.
In Kazakhstan, it seems, Telegram’s end-to-end encryption—while allowing for confidentiality—doesn’t prevent dissident groups from being infiltrated by security services. Perhaps Telegram’s newly-introduced message delete function will be helpful.
A ton of trouble in Tel Aviv
In Israel, the 27 people currently facing charges of involvement in a mass cannabis distribution network on Telegram, would likely agree.
Indictments were filed on Thursday against those involved in the operation, which was dubbed “Telegrass.”
According to the indictment, the network’s managers hid their revenue by using cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, and pocketed $8 million during the two years Telegrass was in operation.
Police said their efforts to break the criminal ring finally succeeded after an agent, who worked for the network, gathered evidence, according to Israel’s Channel 13.
Tokenizing the world?
It’s unclear whether Telegrass was a private or public channel. But Telegram, which is headquartered in the UK, reserves the right to take down public channels and has done so in the past.
In 2017, after Indonesia partially blocked access to the app in answer to the increasing number of public channels launched by extremist groups, the messaging app removed all terrorism-related public channels reported by the Indonesian government.
Solutions to combat the spread of disinformation have also been put forward, including “fact-checking Telegram bots,” proposed by the BBC innovation department, News Labs. Essentially, a bot can be invited into private Telegram chats and can establish whether or not messages or articles posted in the chat are trustworthy.
Telegram also has plenty of innovation in the works. It plans to release its GRAM cryptocurrency by October (at the latest) and to launch the Telegram Open Network (TON), a blockchain platform for the development and deployment of dapps, to rival Ethereum and EOS.
Telegram has created a ready user base of prospective cryptocurrency users; a rapidly expanding network, seemingly immune to government interference (but not infiltration.) Based on its success to date, it’s unsurprising that experts believe it could easily achieve a billion monthly active users by 2022 and generate $5 billion in revenue. Telegram has already overtaken Facebook in popularity in many parts of the world. That world is now primed for the first platform that will finally introduce cryptocurrencies into mainstream.
Telegramlashamiz, when it happens.