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‘The freest platform on the Web’ Everything that’s wrong with Pavel Durov’s explanation for disabling access to ‘campaign materials’ during Russia’s parliamentary elections

Source: Meduza
Nadine Rupp / Getty Images

Mere minutes before midnight on September 18 when the new policy he was announcing would take effect, Telegram founder Pavel Durov published a statement on his personal channel explaining that the network would begin blocking bots “involved in campaigning” in accordance with Russia’s “election silence” law. His announcement did not begin with this information; Durov spent the first three paragraphs of his message berating Apple and Google for bowing to Russia’s censorship demands. “It’s a dangerous precedent,” he said, referring to the two American companies’ decisions to disable access inside Russia to the Navalny app on their respective app stores. “I’ve written many times that the Apple and Google oligopoly poses a threat to free speech.” After these condemnations and praise for Telegram as “still the freest platform on the Web,” Durov got to the core of his announcement. Meduza explains what’s wrong with his explanation.

Since campaigning in Russia has come to an end and the voting process itself has begun, it’s the beginning of the so-called “days of [election] silence” — a tradition enshrined in many countries that provides for the absence of campaigning during actual voting. We consider this practice to be legitimate and urge Telegram users to respect it. From midnight, Moscow time, [Saturday, September 18,] we plan to restrict the functionality of bots involved in election campaigning. [Meduza’s emphasis.] I hope everyone wishing to receive additional information about the candidates was able to do so before the elections started.

Moments after Durov posted this message, Telegram disabled Smart Vote’s bot.

What’s wrong with this explanation:

  • When criticizing Apple and Google for deciding to block Russians’ access to the Navalny app, Pavel Durov doesn’t say a word about the police pressure the Russian authorities exerted on these companies: court marshals visited Google’s office in Moscow, Russia’s Federation Council summoned both companies’ representatives to a formal committee hearing to warn them against election interference, and sources told The New York Times and Bloomberg that state officials even threatened specific Google employees with felony prosecution. If the Russian authorities similarly harassed Telegram, Pavel Durov never reported these incidents, which makes the disabling of Smart Vote’s bot look more like Telegram’s own initiative than forced compliance with Russian laws.
  • Apple and Google didn’t delete the Navalny app from their stores; the companies merely disabled Russian users’ access. If users change their region in the store’s settings or enable a VPN connection, the Navalny app becomes accessible again. Telegram, on the other hand, disabled Smart Vote’s bot globally. Wherever you are in the world, try to view the bot now and you see the same message: “This bot can’t be displayed because it violated local laws.”
  • Durov cites “the legitimate practice” of election silence (when campaigning is prohibited in Russia). In April 2021, however, President Putin signed amendments that eliminated restrictions on campaigning during the “day of silence” before voting. Based on recommendations published in 2018 by Russia’s state censor, the Smart Vote initiative would not qualify as protected speech under paragraph 48, section two, of Russia’s federal law on election rights (in this case, expressions of preferences for particular candidates or electoral associations, including statements about how any individual plans to vote). If Durov truly believes that Russia’s “election silence” restrictions are “legitimate,” Telegram should have started blocking such activity more than 24 hours earlier, beginning on September 16 at 3 p.m., Moscow time, when voting started in Kamchatka and Chukotka on September 17, local time. It’s also unclear why Telegram decided to enforce Russia’s laws on users based outside Russia.
  • At the same time, Telegram is selectively enforcing its newfound respect for “election silence,” disabling the Smart Vote bot but totally ignoring the initiative’s many clones, such as “Reasonable Vote,” a project launched by a spoiler political party office in Krasnodar. Many pro-government channels on Telegram also continue to campaign for the Kremlin’s preferred candidates. For example, on Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s Telegram channel, users can still access the so-called “Sobyanin’s list,” which endorses pro-government candidates.

This isn’t the first time that Pavel Durov has faced accusations of selectively blocking content to please local state authorities. Under the threat of being blocked during mass protests in Iran, for example, Telegram disabled one of the country’s most popular opposition channels on the grounds that inciting violence violates the network’s terms of service. But Telegram remains inundated with content that incites or otherwise endorses violence. At the time of this writing, the network grants access to several openly neo-Nazi channels. Though Telegram started deleting these English-language groups in early 2021 after the January attack on the U.S. Capitol building, many such communities are still supported and active. In Russian, Vladislav Pozdnyakov, the popular leader of “Men’s State,” still uses his channel to coordinate the right-wing group’s activities. Despite numerous complaints that Pozdnyakov uses the platform to incite violence, Telegram continues to disseminate his speech.

Text by Alexey Kovalev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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