Russian censors blocked Telegram’s domain: mistake or a warning shot?

Roskomnadzor, a Russian communications watchdog, briefly blocked Telegram’s short URL on Saturday, following the upload of a video instructing Russian troops to surrender in Ukraine.

The domain, which is used to create shortened links in the Telegram messenger app, was blocked at the request of the Prosecutor General’s office.

The reasons for the decision are not clear. However, Roskomnadzor claimed access to was limited on the basis of Article 15.3 of the law on Information.

This article allows Roskomnadzor to block certain “extremist” material and information it deems as discrediting to the Russian armed forces.

The URL, however, was taken off the Roskomnadzor’s blocklist the very next day, so this move might be interpreted as a warning – or as a simple mistake.

The human rights project Roskomsvoboda, which monitors the list of banned sites, soon showed that precisely three pages with the domain were blocked on October 29. They were re-posts from the Ukrainian Telegram channels calling for Russian soldiers to surrender in Ukraine.

However, Roskomnadzor not only excluded the domain from the blocked register but also felt the need to announce that it was not going to fight Telegram again.

“Possibility of blocking this social network is currently excluded in the territory of Russia,” Roskomnadzor said and added that the Prosecutor General’s office had not even sent a request to block the domain.

Some observers think a mistake was indeed made. The prosecutors might have demanded to block three specific publications, but Roskomnadzor entered the entire domain in the register.

Still, an independent journalist Dmitry Kolezev, currently residing in Vilnius, Lithuania, soon noted on Telegram that authorities might be taking warning shots at Telegram.

This wouldn’t be the first time – in 2018, Roskomnadzor blocked Telegram after the platform refused to provide the Federal Security Service with encryption keys for user correspondence.

The agency then blocked several million IP addresses, which, as it claimed, Telegram was using to sidestep restrictions.

Yet soon enough, it turned out that it was easy to bypass the blocking with the help of a VPN, and even Russian officials started using Telegram for announcements. In June 2020, all restrictions were lifted – it seems the platform is already too big and important to be blocked.

Foreign social networks and media organizations are not untouchable, though. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Moscow has been trying to locally suppress the flow of critical information about the invasion.

Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, and media organizations like BBC and others remain banned in Russia for, among other things, refusing to call Russia’s war in Ukraine a “special military operation.”