Privacy at risk: Telegram sanctioned in Russia for protecting its users

The Russian government fined Telegram and could block use of the instant messaging app, because the company refused to grant it access to users’ communications. Members of INCLO, including CELS, seek to curb such measures.

Telegram Messenger LLP was fined in Russia for refusing to reveal decryption keys that would have compromised the privacy of communications between its users. And according to that country’s “antiterrorism” laws, the Russian government could block Telegram’s use entirely, affecting at least 6 million people who utilize the service. This situation represents a threat to the freedom of expression and online anonymity.

In a press release, Russia-based International Human Rights Group Agora said that given this precedent with Telegram, Russia’s Federal Security Service “may come for WhatsApp, Viber, iMessage, Signal, FaceTime, etc. All IT companies will face the choice – to betray their users’ privacy and hand sensitive information to the authorities or to be blocked and kicked out of the country.”

It is striking that the Federal Security Service, which gathers intelligence, needs no judicial authorization to request that companies turn over stored confidential data or decryption keys that provide access to messages between users. Telegram plans to appeal the sanction levied on it under Russia’s legal framework to the European Court of Human Rights.

Agora, which represents Telegram before the Russian courts, sent an urgent appeal regarding this situation to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye. It requested that the rapporteur immediately request information from the Russian government regarding the potential blocking of access to Telegram, and urge compliance with a UN General Assembly resolution on the right to privacy and limits on state surveillance.

In solidarity with Agora, its fellow members of the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) – including CELS – sent a letter of support to David Kaye, which may be read below.


c/o Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations Office at Geneva
1211 Geneva 10 Switzerland

Attn: Prof. David Kaye
the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection
of the right to freedom of opinion and expression

Via email

December 19, 2017

Ref.: Urgent appeal by Agora International on the potential risk of blocking access to Telegram Messenger in Russia

The undersigned national civil society human rights organizations, members of the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO), would like to express concern about excessive interference by Russian authorities in freedom of expression and threat to online anonymity. On December 12, 2017, Russian court confirmed the fine imposed on Telegram Messenger LLP for refusing to provide Russian Federal Security Service authorities with access to Internet users’ communications. This means that already in the current year Telegram can be blocked for Russian users.

The Telegram case demonstrated that in Russia all ISPs face a choice – to disclose and compromise encryption algorithms for the intelligence services or to be blocked and lose the audience. This threatens human rights not only in Russia but throughout the world.

INCLO’s recent report ‘Surveillance and Democracy: Chilling Tales From Around the World’ has demonstrated widespread anxiety that intelligence gathering may be harming democracy itself, weakening democratic processes and institutions in countries where they are often taken for granted, and impeding or undermining the development of democratic structures in countries that have only recently emerged from more authoritarian systems and abusive surveillance regimes.

In this regards we support the position set forth in the urgent appeal submitted by Agora International on behalf of Telegram Messenger LLP on December 14, 2017 and respectfully ask to consider it within the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur.

We appreciate your attention and remain at your disposal for any further clarifications in this regard.

Yours sincerely,

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU, United States)
Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI)
Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA)
Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS, Argentina)
Dejusticia (Colombia)
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR)
Human Rights Law Network (HRLN, India)
Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU)
Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL)
Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC)
Legal Resource Centre (LRC, South Africa)
Liberty (United Kingdom)