Why Telegram had to follow Apple and Google when they suspended a voting app

Why Telegram had to follow Apple and Google when they suspended a voting app

Pavel Durov

Telegram gives its users more freedom of speech than any other popular mobile application. Unlike other apps, Telegram can't be pressured by shareholders, cloud providers or advertisers into unjustified censorship. 

Telegram doesn't exist in isolation, however. It depends on other companies to function, from banks and telecoms to Apple and Google. The latter are particularly important, because Telegram – like all mobile apps – has to follow rules set by Apple and Google in order to remain available to users on iOS and Android.

This year Google and Apple started to require that apps like Telegram comply with local laws in the countries where they operate. Some laws (like surveillance laws) are incompatible with human rights, and we have never been pressured by the OS developers because of ignoring them. Some other laws, mostly related to publicly available content, are considered legitimate by Apple and Google, so we have to follow suit every time they enforce them in their ecosystems.

An example of this occurred last week, when Apple and Google banned a Russian voting app due to local laws. The app offered tactical voting advice, directing most of its users to vote for the communist party in the Russian parliamentary elections last weekend. This voting app also existed for months as a Telegram bot, and despite thousands of reports and requests to take it down, we let it remain available. After the election started, however, both Google and Apple removed the app from their app stores, explaining that it violated local laws against interfering with elections – and that it was the developers’ responsibility to ensure compliance. Within 24 hours, Telegram was forced to follow the stores’ policies and temporarily suspend the bot for the 2 remaining days of the election. 

Some people asked whether we could have avoided doing that. They rightly expect us to question any demand for censorship. As anyone familiar with our history knows, Telegram is the first app to stand up to and, if necessary, pick a fight with a government. We did it multiple times in many authoritarian countries from Hong Kong to Belarus. We successfully withstood attempts to block our service for years. But last weekend was not the right moment to start a war – for two reasons. 

First, without support from Apple and Google, any fight with a local regulator is lost before it starts. Once Apple and Google remove Telegram from a country's app store due to non-compliance with national laws (which is what they now threaten to do in such cases), Telegram loses the ability to bypass local bans, because users in this country can no longer install the app or any of its updates. Our website that hosts Telegram Web and the standalone Telegram app for Android would be blocked by local telecoms in a matter of minutes. Even existing users would lose access to Telegram once Apple and Google turn off notifications for the app (which are used not only to deliver messages to users, but also to distribute unblocked IP addresses and dodge censorship).

Second, this particular demand of the Russian authorities wasn't obviously unconstitutional, as they referred to a law that restricts campaigning after people start casting their votes. Laws against political campaigning while voting is underway exist in many countries and the Russian counterpart had been introduced a long time ago. Had we received a similar demand from any European country, we would have complied with it. On the contrary, had Russia or any other country demanded something that is in clear violation of human rights, we would rather face an outright ban of Telegram in that country than compromise our values.

This has happened before. When the Iranian government tried to pressure Telegram into silencing all voices that opposed the Iranian government, we ignored them and got blocked in Iran, ready to lose 40 million users. Similarly, we chose to be blocked in Russia in 2018 rather than yield to unconstitutional demands for mass surveillance.

However, this time the situation was completely different. A request to temporarily suspend a campaigning bot while an election is already underway is nowhere close to demands for mass surveillance or mass censorship.

50 million Russians depend on Telegram for privacy and free speech, and more than half a billion other Telegram users depend on critical updates that are typically put on hold globally by the app stores in cases of local non-compliance. Getting Telegram blocked for all Russians to give a political party two additional days to campaign after the elections have already started is like sacrificing the Queen for a Pawn in chess without a clear way to win. For me, the interests of hundreds of millions Telegram users will always be incomparably more important than those of any political force. And I am ready to personally take heat from politicians both from the ruling parties and their opposition for our principle of always putting our users first.

Telegram does the most one could expect from a messaging app to defend freedom and common sense. In Russia in particular, there's no other platform that is doing more to defend free speech. This year alone we have been fined 35 million rubles by the Russian authorities for refusing to remove channels that allow people to organize protests. Most of these channels belong to the creators of the voting bot, who've been using them to coordinate their followers for years, and continue doing so.

Some users wish Telegram was 100% independent from everyone and could ignore Apple, Google and national laws of all countries. I also wish it was possible. But the reality we live in is different. I have warned the public many times of the danger that the Apple/Google duopoly poses for freedom of speech. And, as I wrote in August, the world is becoming more pro-censorship in general, with even democratic countries changing their definitions of free speech due to concerns of election interference from geopolitical rivals. 

Unfortunately, no mobile app can provide absolute freedom from any and all restrictions. What Telegram can and will do, however, is provide the maximum possible range for public discussion. Our mission is to give you the best messaging app in the world – and this includes doing more than others to protect your freedoms. We will keep driving this mission forward, limited only by the boundaries of what is theoretically feasible.