Russia’s Telegram ban that knocked out 15M Google, Amazon IP addresses had a precedent in Zello

Russia blocking access to Telegram after the messaging app refused to give it access to encrypted messages has picked up an unintended casualty: we’re now up to over 15 million IP addresses from Amazon and Google getting shut down by the regulators in the process, taking various other (non-Telegram) services down with it.

Telegram’s CEO Pavel Durov earlier today said that its reach in the country has yet to see an impact from the ban 24 hours on, with VPNs, proxies and third-party cloud services stepping in to pick up the slack for its roughly 14 million users in the country, and third parties refusing to buckle under requests from Roskomnadzor, the regulator, to remove the app from its stores and servers.

“Thank you for your support and loyalty, Russian users of Telegram. Thank you, Apple, Google, Amazon, Microsoft — for not taking part in political censorship,” Durov noted.

But Telegram’s Russia crisis is not the first time that an app banned by the Russian government has had to rely on third-party support to navigate its position with users. A recent precedent involving a much smaller communications app sheds some light on how all of this works. And ironically, its own run-in may have been the reason for why the government moved so quickly to block so many IP addresses around Telegram’s, affecting more than just the app itself.

A little over a year ago, the walkie-talkie app Zello received a notice from the Russian regulator Roskomnadzor. Zello was informed that it would be banned unless it started to host records of the conversations that were taking place on the app on Russian servers — in compliance with a hosting requirement that Russia put in place for ISPs back in 2014 as part of its efforts to tighten its control of digital information in the name of national security.

You might remember the name Zello from its bump of attention when a wave of people hit by Hurricane Harvey in Texas used it to communicate with each other when voice services went down or became too clumsy to use, but mobile internet connections stayed up. “Voice is how we most naturally communicate, and push-to-talk and radio-style communication is instant, no dialling or waiting,” said Zello CEO Bill Moore. “It can be with one person or large groups and build relationships and to solve problems.”

The startup itself is based out of Austin, Texas and has around 120 million registered users, with around four million monthly active users.

Moore — who had in the past also founded and run another Texas startup, TuneIn — said in an interview this week that Zello’s run-in with Russia started about a year ago, when the regulator started to block the application in Spring 2017, after Zello refused to cooperate with the hosting requirement, both on grounds of cost and principle.

(Cost: because it’s a small startup. And principle: because Zello is built in a way where messages are stored locally, both for direct messages and those sent in more widely-distributed channels, the feature that Moore believes might have been “why Zello annoyed Russia,” because protestors used these channels to coordinate activities.”)

Instead of buckling and leaving Russia, Zello decided to use to some software it had written years before, when the app had been issued with a block in Venezuela after it ran afoul of the government there — software “that let us change IP addresses for our service,” as Moore describes it. The change in IP addresses essentially meant that as Zello was shut down in one place, it was able to hop to another, using services from either AWS or Google Cloud.

Moore said that Zello — which originally hosted its service on IBM’s cloud before the ban — used its IP hopping tactic for nearly a year, moving first across IP addresses on Amazon and then hopping to Google Cloud when Amazon got too hot. By the time Zello started using Google Cloud, the government was well on to Zello’s ways, and it took only about 10 days before Google asked Zello to stop, Zello’s CTO and founder Alexey Gavrilov added.

“About a month ago, the press in Russia began to report that Roskomnadzor was threatening to block millions of addresses if that’s what it took to get Zello [to retreat]. That was when Amazon said, ‘you need to stop changing IP addresses,’” Gavrilov said. “We tried to get Amazon to reconsider, making the case that by asking us to stop, it is are really acting the same way that ISPs do that are controlled by Russia. Zello is not damaging, but Russia is by blocking. It’s not wise to go along with that threat.”

His argument echoes what Durov has been saying in defense of Telegram, although it didn’t appear to wash for the smaller app. “We lost that debate,” Gavrilov said.

Moore and Gavrilov say they believe Telegram may be using a similar kind of approach to move around Amazon- and Google-based IP addresses (I’ve tried to contact Durov to ask about this but have not had a reply; Google and Amazon also have not replied to my emails). However, now, with the Russian authorities well aware of the tactic, it simply decided to block large swathes of IPs to act more quickly, rather than negotiate with cloud companies to pick out which IP addresses were actually being used.

Partly because of the size of the service in question, and partly because of the blanket blocking, the difference between the IP addresses being blocked varied from just over 2,000 for Zello to more than 15 million by the time Telegram attempted its own IP hops.

Zello still believes that it was not in the wrong in its own encounters with the Russian government, although its appeals to Amazon and Google, and eventually Apple and others who host the app on their stores, ultimately didn’t wash.

“We believe that Zello doesn’t violate Russian law because originally the hosting requirement was written for ISPs, and Zello is not an ISP,” Moore said. “We cooperate with law enforcement on a consistent basis and do what we can under the law.” But like Telegram, Zello takes the view that the medium should not be attacked because of how it is used. “Terrorists drink water, but I don’t think we should outlaw water, either,” is how Moore describes his stance.

Since about two weeks ago, the only way that people in Russia can use Zello is by way of VPN proxies. Zello has a fairly even distribution of its several millon monthly active users across several countries, including the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, and Hong Kong. Russia had been one of its top markets until this happened, but the cost to Zello has been about half of its active users in the country, which now stand at 200,000.

“We don’t like to think about how we’ve lost half our users there,” Gavrilov said. “We like to think about how many we’ve managed to keep.”

Zello has always been ad-free and free to use by regular consumers. Moore said that the company is profitable, making its revenues through a premium tier for businesses to have their own private channels. So far, Zello is completely bootstrapped, although Moore said that it is likely it will want to raise money eventually to grow its consumer business.

Neither CTO nor CEO think that Russian bans impact the company’s wider business.

“In my opinion, incidents like these only help companies like Telegram and Zello on the global market,” Gavrilov (a native of Russia) said. “Realistically, Russia is a small share of the Telegram user base, and standing up to the demands in Russia just communicates to everyone else that you can trust these people. That only makes it more valuable.”

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