Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple, has become something of an apostle for privacy and data encryption. Apple’s iMessage system is encrypted end to end, meaning only the sender and user can access the information, which prevents a prying government from looking. “The only way to protect your data is to encrypt it,” Cook declared recently. “There is no other way known today. And so, if I were you, I would do business with no one that wasn’t doing that.”
The messenger app Telegram is not an Apple product, but it embodies Cook’s philosophy. Telegram was created by the digital innovator Pavel Durov, a Russian who left the country after he lost control of an earlier social media platform, VKontakte.
Telegram relies on encryption and has 200 million active users worldwide. It is popular and useful in places with nosy governments, such as Russia and Iran. Recently, Russia demanded that Telegram turn over keys to user data, and Telegram refused. As a result, for roughly a month and a half, Russia’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, has been trying to shut down Telegram in the country.
So far, Durov has kept the service alive in a cat-and-mouse contest with the regulators, who blocked huge swaths of the Russian Internet in a failed attempt to catch and crush his app. By standing up against Russia, Durov appears to be translating Cook’s advice into action.
We understand that Apple is not going to cave in to the Russian thought police. Apple has not removed Telegram from the App Store nor blocked notifications, and on Friday, Apple pushed out an update of Telegram as Durov requested. Cook has said Apple must follow local laws in the countries where it does business, but others have pointed out that those laws can often be written to serve the needs of authoritarian regimes.
In this case, Cook has quietly stood on principle and refused to give in to Russia’s demands. This is an important development in the still-unsettled battle over freedom in the digital world. Telegram is an extremely significant test case. If Apple backs up Durov and resists pressure, as it appears to be doing, others may be encouraged to stand tall as well.
The Washington Post