After Telegram, Viber May Be Blocked, Russian Minister Says
Viber may be treated like Telegram if security services are not able to obtain its encryption keys, Russia’s telecom minister said. The app offers end-to-end encryption, and is the most popular messenger in several Eastern European countries. Recently, its COO, Michael Shmilov, said the company would not be able to hand over the keys.
Russian authorities may try to block Viber if the Federal Security Service (FSB) does not gain access to its encryption keys, according to comments made by the Russian Minister of Communications and Mass Media, Nikolai Nikiforov. “This matter concerns the FSB which has the powers to implement an order to provide the encryption keys. If the security services have problems with acquiring the keys, they can turn to the court and obtain a similar decision,” Nikiforov said.
The minister was confronted with a question about the future of Viber after Russian authorities have been trying to block Telegram since April 16, following a decision by the Tagansky District Court of Moscow from April 13. So far, their attempts have been unsuccessful but the messaging service, widely used within the
crypto community, has been experiencing issues while trying hard to circumvent imposed restrictions.
In March, the chief operating officer of Viber Media, the operator of the messenger, told RBC that Viber would not be able to fulfill a request to hand over the encryption keys. Michael Shmilov said the company cooperates with law enforcement agencies in many countries but stressed that it would not do certain things. And, handing over encryption keys is one of them. “We cannot give them something that we don’t have. They can ask the users for their keys. We can’t see them, and we don’t stored them,” he explained.
Viber was launched as an instant messaging and voice over IP service in 2010. The software was originally developed by the Israel-based Viber Media, which was bought by the Japanese company Rakuten in 2014. Last year the corporate name was changed to Rakuten Viber. The company is currently based in Luxembourg.
The messenger, which claims to have 900 million users, is very popular in Eastern Europe and is the top messaging app in countries like Belarus, Moldova, and
Ukraine. In Russia, it’s currently the second most popular application, after Whatsapp. According to a survey conducted by the Russian Modern Media Research Institute in January, Facebook owned Whatsapp has a share of 59% of the Russian users, while Viber is used by 36%. The messenger of the Russian social network Vkontakte is third, with 32%. Telegram is used by 19% of the Russians, and Facebook Messenger – by 14%.
The clampdown on private messaging in Russia started when the country’s telecom regulator, Roskomnadzor, tried to restrict access to Telegram by blocking IP addresses used by the app. Despite some interruptions in its services, authorities have not been able to completely prevent the use of the massager. Roskomnadzor blocked about 20 VPN and proxy services which offering access to Telegram servers.
IP-addresses of ordinary Internet users may be blocked as a result of the conflict between the messenger and the regulator, warned Dmitriy Marinchev, Russia’s Internet Ombudsman. “Sooner or later, Telegram may switch to a peer-to-peer network and Roskomnadzor will have to block all their users’ IPs,” he explained. Marinchev added that everything now depends on how far Telegram will go in rewriting its software.
Skype is a messenger which started as a peer-to-peer and client-server system, features that were part of its appeal. After changing hands several times, however, the platform hasn’t kept much from the original P2P concept. In 2011, Skype was acquired by Microsoft which transformed it into a centralized service based on MS’s cloud computing platform Azure. Leaked documents revealing mass surveillance of global communications showed that the company had granted American intelligence unrestricted access to Skype. This year, the messenger announced it is going to offer end-to-end encryption for audio calls, text and multimedia messages through Private Conversations. The feature, however, will not be set as a default option and won’t be available for video chats.
The measures against Telegram have created difficulties for many Russians, even including those who are not using Telegram. Large Internet companies – including search engine, Yandex, and social media networks, Vkontakte, and, Odnoklassniki – have been affected. In April, Russian Viber users also complained about interruptions. According to the company, the issues were related to the blockade of Telegram. On May 1, Viber announced it had restored full access to its platform. Russian media have been asking the question “What’s next?” hinting about the most popular messenger in the country – Whatsapp. It uses end-to-end encryption for calls and messages in its latest versions.