How easy is it to ban a technology?
Even if you can get your citizens to believe the technology you want to ban is in some way immoral. How easy is it to actually ban in practice?
That’s the question I’m going to look into today.
Messaging apps are big business
I’m sure you’ve heard how ubiquitous WeChat is in China. People use it for everything, from dating, to browsing the internet, to hiring taxis, to paying for purchases.
WeChat has over 1 billion active users. It is everything that Facebook Messenger aims to be but isn’t. At least in China.
Still, it doesn’t have the worldwide appeal of WhatsApp, which now has 1.5 billion active users. Or around 20% of the world’s population.
When Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, people scoffed. They aren’t scoffing anymore, especially as Facebook has begun its plans to monetise WhatsApp’s business users.
As these messaging apps become more and more popular, they have taken the security of their users on board.
A couple of years ago WhatsApp introduced end-to-end encryption on all its chats. This basically makes it’s “theoretically” impossible for anyone to read your conversations except the person or persons you are messaging.
When you open up a chat with someone on WhatsApp it creates a key that is only shared with the participants of the chat. The messages are all sent encrypted and then the key is used to unscramble them. It means that without the key no one can read them.
This all happens in the background without you even noticing.
The problem with secure messaging is that governments can’t read and share it. For anyone living in a corrupt or dangerous place, this is fantastic. For the corrupt and dangerous governments, this is not.
And that’s why we are starting to see a huge governmental backlash across the world against secure messaging.
“The first choice app for paedophiles”
Leading the charge is our own Theresa May.
She has long being against her citizens having access to privacy. And at Davos this January, she spun out the same tired “terrorists and paedophiles” line.
“Just as these big companies need to step up, so we also need cross-industry responses because smaller platforms can quickly become home to criminals and terrorists.
“We have seen that happen with Telegram. And we need to see more cooperation from smaller platforms like this.”
How will she achieve this? By branding them the home of terrorists and paedophiles, of course.
“No one wants to be known as the ‘terrorists’ platform’ or the first-choice app for paedophiles.”
The problem with this kind of rhetoric and technological illiteracy is twofold, as New Scientist points out:
The arguments against banning encryption are well rehearsed, but worth repeating. Encryption is not just a tool used by terrorists. Anyone who uses the internet uses encryption. Messaging apps, online banking, e-commerce, government websites, or your local hospital all use encryption.
A ban on encryption would make it impossible to do anything online that relies on keeping things private, like sending your credit card details or messaging your doctor.
Even if governments were willing to sacrifice their citizen’s online privacy, any sort of ban would be futile anyway. Anyone with a little technical know-how could write their own code to encrypt and decrypt data. In fact, the code to do so is so small it easily fits on a t-shirt.
So while Amber Rudd and her ilk insist that end-to-end encryption is “completely unacceptable”, they would not be able to function in a world without it.
Now, you’ll notice that May singled out one app in particular: Telegram. Why? Well, let’s take a look.
Why do governments hate Telegram?
Telegram is a secure messaging app. It’s sort of like a cross between WhatsApp and Facebook. It has 200 million users and is growing by the day.
The thing people like about Telegram is its stance on security and its ability to work as a platform.
You can set up channels on it and program bots. So it’s a great way for companies to get news out. It’s massively popular with crypto companies.
In fact, Telegram has recently had its own initial coin offering (ICO), the largest in history, raising $1.7 billion.
Actually, that’s not very accurate. It was scheduled to have a huge ICO, but it raised so much in pre-funding that it called the ICO off. It was all a bit of a mess really, but it got Telegram even more publicity.
The creator of Telegram is Russian. Well, he was. He’s now a fugitive. Russia doesn’t like Telegram and has been playing a cat and mouse game to try and block it.
That’s because, although it is officially banned in Russia, Telegram is virtually impossible to shut down.
When the Russian crackdown on Telegram happened, Telegram created free virtual private networks (VPNs) and proxy servers to evade the blocks.
The creator Pavel Durov then posted that in order to support “internet freedom” he would give out bitcoin to “individuals and companies who run socks5 proxies and VPN”.
Russia then doubled down on its blocking of internet traffic related to Telegram, but it couldn’t separate it from services it didn’t want banned.
As Al Jazeera reported last month:
Mid-week, reports started coming in of various companies experiencing difficulties with their online operations: from international companies such as Viber and taxi service Gett, to Russian ticket booking service Kupiblet and supermarket chains like Diksi.
On Thursday, Chikov reported on his Telegram channel that some 120 companies – among them small businesses, internet stores and VPN operators – had reached out to Agora requesting help to get unblocked.
And the Russian censor, Roskomnadzor, ran into even more trouble as its war on Telegram continued:
According to blogger and activist Alexander Brusentsev, the blocking efforts have also boosted the technical literacy of some Russians by encouraging them to learn about proxies and VPN services, which they wouldn’t have done otherwise. It has also driven some to resist Roskomnadzor’s censorship efforts.
“People find it interesting to watch how Roskomnadzor can’t do anything, and they find it even more interesting to help make sure this continues to be so,” he told Al Jazeera via Telegram.
“Subversion and guerrilla tactics are actively being used and will continue to be used in the future.”
Brusentsev himself ran into problems with Roskomnadzor in 2017 and had to leave Russia temporarily after the censor accused him of “tampering” with the blocking of websites.
Throughout last week, Roskomnadzor’s website was intermittently unavailable. The censor blamed the disruption on DDoS attacks.
That Al Jazeera article I’m quoting from calls it an “internet civil war”.
It seems in Russia, you can’t just trot out the terrorists and paedophiles line and expect everyone to fall in line.
In fact, Telegram even managed to organise a 12,000+ person protest against the “ban”. Telegram’s logo is a paper plane, and so it asked people all to gather and throw paper planes at the same time.
You’ll notice I began with the UK’s view on secure messaging and internet privacy, and then went on to Russia’s. There was a reason for this.
It’s easy to look at all these far away countries and think their policies are corrupt and the people rising up against them are downtrodden and deserve more freedom. But when exactly the same thing is happening at home, we don’t see it that way.
The actions of the aims of the government are the same – they want more control of our communication and more power to stop dissent – but their stance is taken differently. Both the UK and Russia want the same thing for the same reason when it comes to Telegram.
And so does Iran.
Iran, that bastion of free speech has now taken up the same cause as May. It wants rid of Telegram.
Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei deletes Telegram
As Sputnik International reported in April:
Last week, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei deleted the highly popular messaging app Telegram, having opted for a domestically-produced alternative.
Tehran is advancing the new “Soroush” instant messenger, encouraging people to abandon the Telegram network “in line with safeguarding national interests.” Among peculiar features on the new Iranian-made app are multiple emojis, featuring women wearing veils, suggesting going pray, holding a picture of Khamenei, as well as signs wishing “death” to America, Israel and freemasons.
The most surprising thing about this story, I thought, was that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had Telegram in the first place.
Shortly after his statement, Telegram was outright banned. The reason given was the same reason our own government likes to give:
As The New York Times reported:
The hard-liners complain that Telegram poses dangers because Iran’s censors have no control over it. In a statement posted on the news website Mizan, which is associated with the country’s conservative judiciary, a prosecutor accused Telegram of supporting terrorists and other hostile groups.
In short, the authorities fear it because they can’t control it.
The thing I find interesting about the whole Telegram fiasco, though, is that governments believe they can actually stop technology advancing.
Iran’s minister of information and communication technology, Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, summed the situation up quite well, before allegedly resigning:
Administering sanctions against ourselves from the modern world will cause backwardness.
It seems that everyone actually involved in technology can see the futility of governments trying to subvert it. And also the impossibility.
New Scientist is currently running a campaign to educate politicians about technology, which it launched following May’s stance.
“Theresa May’s response is predictable but disappointing,” says Paul Bernal at the University of East Anglia, UK. “If you stop ‘safe places’ for terrorists, you stop safe places for everyone, and we rely on those safe places for a great deal of our lives.”
Last month New Scientist called for a greater understanding of technology among politicians. Until that happens, having a reasonable conversation about how best to tackle extremism online will remain out of reach.
“The internet is a convenient scapegoat – and a distraction from the awkward questions that might otherwise be asked about things like foreign policy and arms sales,” says Bernal.
We are living in a strange time.
Technology is advancing at such a rate that it has left behind the powers that be. They realise this and it scares them. But they are so out of touch and technologically illiterate, they have no idea what to do about it.
You can’t simply “ban” a technology like you can ban a book. It’s far more pervasive than that.
The measures that they propose to close Pandora’s box will not work. Anyone with any technical knowledge whatsoever can get around “bans”.
To take one recent example: if you want to go on a blocked and banned site like that most famous of all file sharing sites, thepiratebay.org, you can simply download a VPN, use a proxy or even use a tor browser.
The ban didn’t do anything to stop the people using The Pirate Bay because the people using it were the kind of people who can get around state bans within seconds.
All these efforts to regain control do is hurt average users. The people governments are targeting – if they are as sophisticated as they claim to be – will be completely unaffected.
Governments must realise this, yet they continue in their unwavering ineptitude.
Looking at it from the outside, it’s all quite absurd.
Where do your views stand on censorship and government bans? Would you invest in a company like Telegram? Let me know: email@example.com.
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor
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