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.

Last week, in Fulton, WI, together with election officials from the state of Wisconsin and the election technology company VotingWorks, Microsoft piloted ElectionGuard in an actual election for the first time.

As voters in Fulton cast ballots in a primary election for Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates, the official count was tallied using paper ballots as usual. However, ElectionGuard also provided an encrypted digital tally of the vote that enabled voters to confirm their votes have been counted and not altered. The pilot is one step in a deliberate and careful process to get ElectionGuard right before it's used more broadly across the country.

Read more about the process at Microsoft On The Issues.

The risk of a major technology blow-up between the US and Europe is growing. A few weeks ago, we wrote about how the European Union wanted to boost its "technological sovereignty" by tightening its oversight of Big Tech and promoting its own alternatives to big US and Chinese firms in areas like cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

Last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her top digital officials unveiled their first concrete proposals for regulating AI, and pledged to invest billions of euros to turn Europe into a data superpower.

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Communal violence in Delhi: Over the past few days, India's capital city has seen its deadliest communal violence in decades. This week's surge in mob violence began as a standoff between protesters against a new citizenship law that critics say discriminates against India's Muslims and the law's Hindu nationalist defenders. Clashes between Hindu and Muslim mobs in majority-Muslim neighborhoods in northeast Delhi have killed at least 11 people, both Muslim and Hindu, since Sunday. We're watching to see how Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government responds – Delhi's police force reports to federal, rather than local, officials.

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Ian Bremmer's perspective on what's happening in geopolitics:

What are the takeaways from President Trump's visit to India?

No trade deal, in part because Modi is less popular and he's less willing to focus on economic liberalization. It's about nationalism right now. Hard to get that done. But the India US defense relationship continues to get more robust. In part, those are concerns about China and Russia.

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27,000: The Emir of Qatar has decreed a $27,000 fine and up to five years in prison for anyone who publishes, posts, or repost content that aims to "harm the national interest" or "stir up public opinion." No word on whether the Doha-based Al-Jazeera network, long a ferocious and incisive critic of other Arab governments, will be held to the same standard.

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