S(t)inging Telegram

S(t)inging Telegram

A popular messaging app refuses to play ball with authoritarian government’s internet censors. The app gets banned. Simple, right? Not exactly, as my pal @kevinallison, our tech guru, explains.


Look at Russia, where the government has tried to ban and block access to Telegram, a secure messaging service that has refused to share its users’ encryption keys with spy agencies. Since placing the app on a blacklist about a week ago, the government has been playing whack-a-mole with Telegram ever since, as the app deftly hops from one internet address to another, always a step ahead of the authorities.

As of Monday evening, in fact, Telegram was still widely available in Russia, but many other websites ended up knocked offline as collateral damage of the government’s scorched-earth attempt to block it. Meanwhile, Telegram founder Pavel Durov (a Dubai-based Russian national often compared to Mark Zuckerberg) seems to be enjoying it all — he even posted a shirtless photo of himself (and he’s pretty ripped), in an obvious challenge to the often bare-chested Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But beyond the obvious entertainment value, the episode shows that not all authoritarian governments have quite the control over the internet that you might imagine. Although the Kremlin has skillfully used the internet to pursue its aims abroad, it still struggles with the politics of controlling online information flows at home.

Russia lacks anything like China’s Great Firewall which gives Beijing much finer control over apps and websites within China’s borders. In part that’s because unlike in China, where the internet and censorship have gone hand-in-hand since the earliest days of the web’s arrival, Russians are more accustomed to accessing whatever websites they like. Telegram, for example, is the messaging app of choice for many high-ranking government officials and oligarchs.

That means the authorities have to be more careful about how they exercise control. Overreach can either provoke humiliating (shirtless!) defiance from a well-resourced and technologically-savvy firm like Telegram, or it can spark a backlash among users, particularly well-heeled ones, who take a certain amount of internet freedom for granted.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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