The mass protests in Belarus against the de facto dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenko after the fraudulent elections of August 9 are worth analyzing from a technological perspective: despite repeated attempts by the government to control the internet, one tool in particular, Telegram, remains widely in use and has become, to all intents and purposes, the means to coordinate most demonstrations.
Telegram is an instant messaging tool created by Pavel Durov, and is often mistakenly associated with Russia. Durov was born in 1984 in St. Petersburg (Russia) and was in fact the creator of what is still the most important social network in the country, VK. However, VK was taken away from him in 2014 by a Russian government maneuver using the ubiquitous Mail.Ru, and Durov decided, along with his older brother, Nikolai, to exile himself from Russia permanently, taking St. Kitts and Nevis citizenship through a financial donation, and to create Telegram as a tool resilient to censorship.
Russia has tried to block Telegram several times since April 2018, but without success, until it was finally unblocked in June 2020. The technique used by Telegram to remain accessible, domain fronting, is worth looking at: it allows apps to connect to a “front” domain, which then forwards the connection using the https robust encryption to the app maker’s real infrastructure. Just as it did in Russia, it has allowed Belarusian citizens to continue to use Telegram even when many other apps were being blocked by government censorship.
The result of using this technique to keep Telegram service available in Belarus is that the government has been unable to prevent a large part of the country’s population from organizing protests. The most important channel, NEXTA Live, has 1.3 million subscribers, a quarter of the country’s total population.
When, in the runup to the elections, Lukashenko’s government began blocking the internet, the more technically savvy opposition protestors were able to bypass these blockages by using VPNs such as Psiphon or Tachyon, recently popularized by the protests in Hong Kong and Iran, but Telegram is a much easier option that anyone could install and use immediately. Around 100,000 people in the country work in the technology industry, which generates 6.4% of Belarus’s GDP, and many of them are now encouraging others to use Telegram, as well as using other media, even including USB disks, to encourage the use of VPNs to avoid government censorship.
Regardless of the final outcome of the protests in Belarus, where a dictator on the edge of the EU who has been in power for twenty-six years is holding on to power by any means, Telegram offers a model to be copied by activists in many other countries looking to evade government control. And as always, there are two sides: on the one hand, the potential for liberation movements; and on the other, the possibility of becoming a channel for anything, as is already the case with drug trafficking. But for Pavel Durov, who could do nothing to prevent the company he had founded being stolen by Kremlin cronies, it’s clear once again, revenge is a dish best served cold.