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Telegram App Says Apple Is Blocking Updates Over Dispute With Russia

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Apple was thrust into the middle of a long-simmering dispute on Thursday between the encrypted messaging app Telegram and the Russian government, which has sought to shut down the service since it declined to help Moscow intercept communications sent through its platform.

Pavel Durov, the founder of Telegram, accused Apple of refusing to allow the messaging service’s software to be updated globally after Russian authorities ordered the iPhone maker to remove Telegram from Apple’s App Store. The app ran afoul of the Russian authorities for refusing to cooperate with the country’s security agencies.

The allegation from Mr. Durov is significant because it undercuts the importance that Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, has placed on privacy and encrypted communication, and adds to criticism that the company too easily acquiesces to the demands of governments in important foreign markets. Last year, Apple agreed to Chinese government rules to remove apps from its App Store that allowed users to avoid the country’s online censorship through virtual private networks.

The compromises contrast with Apple’s dealings with authorities in the United States. In 2016, Apple was taken to court for refusing to help the Federal Bureau of Investigation gain access to encrypted messages sent by one of two attackers who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif.

“Russia banned Telegram on its territory in April because we refused to provide decryption keys for all our users’ communications to Russia’s security agencies,” Mr. Durov said in a statement posted to his official Telegram channel. “We believe we did the only possible thing, preserving the right of our users to privacy in a troubled country.”


“Unfortunately, Apple didn’t side with us,” he continued.

A Russian national, Mr. Durov left the country in 2014 after he lost control of Vkontakte, Russia’s popular rival to Facebook. In 2013, he founded Telegram, selling it as one of the few remaining ways to communicate while avoiding the intelligence services. The app was particularly popular in Russia and Iran, where it has also been  blocked. In March, the company said Telegram had reached 200 million active daily users.

Mr. Durov said that while Russia accounted for only about 7 percent of Telegram’s user base, Apple’s move had effectively barred it from updating software for all of its users worldwide since mid-April. He said that had meant Telegram was also unable to fully comply with new privacy rules put in place in the European Union last week.

An Apple spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Mr. Durov’s statement.

The situation highlights the messy gatekeeper role that Apple plays, with its App Store acting as the main way people can download apps, along with Google’s Play store. Apple finds itself caught between the interests of encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram and Signal, which want to prevent anybody from intercepting communications between users, and governments, which want access to messages to identify security risks and other issues.

The Russian authorities have repeatedly said Telegram is a threat, claiming that extremists use it to coordinate their efforts. Russian human rights activists and many otherwise apolitical users, however, saw the move as an attempt by the Kremlin to curtail freedoms and as only the first step in a broader plan to introduce online censorship.

Thousands rallied in central Moscow at the end of April to protest the shutdown.

The Russian government’s communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, has been trying to block Telegram since the end of April, when a Moscow court cleared the way for it to do so. The agency went to court after the app refused to share its encryption keys with the Russian security services.

So far, the attempts to shut Telegram down have been clumsy, with the app remaining available on many devices in Russia, including some that began to use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to hide their geographic location from authorities.

In order to hinder access to the app, Russian authorities took the unusual step of shutting down entire segments of the Russian internet. Many small organizations, including language schools and museums, have been blocked as collateral damage.

source: nytimes

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