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Telegram CEO Durov Says Russia's FSB Demands Messenger's Encryption Keys

The founder and CEO of Telegram, Pavel Durov
The founder and CEO of Telegram, Pavel Durov

Russia's main security agency has demanded encryption keys to the popular Telegram messaging app, according to the company's founder, as authorities ratchet up pressure on what has grown into a vibrant platform for political discussion in the country.

Telegram CEO Pavel Durov said on September 27 that Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) had notified him that his firm was in violation of a controversial antiterrorism law requiring companies to provide access to encrypted communications they facilitate.

Durov, a pioneering Russian Internet entrepreneur, posted scans of the FSB documents -- dated September 14 -- on VKontakte, the popular Russian-language social-media network that he founded.

In a September 27 post on his Telegram channel, Durov said Russian authorities "seem to be unhappy because we won't comply with the unconstitutional 'Yarovaya law' and won't give them the encryption keys they wanted."

The package of counterterrorism laws enacted in 2016 are widely referred to as the Yarovaya laws after pro-Kremlin lawmaker Irina Yarovaya, who helped spearhead the legislation.

Rights groups call the laws a draconian infringement on privacy that can be used to stifle dissent.

Human Rights Watch has said the laws' anti-encryption provisions would "endanger activists and journalists who rely on encrypted messaging applications to communicate securely."

The documents indicate Telegram's London-based company could be fined up to 1 million rubles ($17,200) for failing to provide the FSB with encryption keys.

They state that the FSB sent the request on July 14, around two weeks after Telegram was registered as an information distributor in Russia.

The company's decision to comply with the registration requirements came days after Russia's telecommunications regulator threatened to block Telegram for failing to hand over data and secrets about its encrypted-messaging service.

But Durov said at the time that Telegram would "not comply with unconstitutional and technically impossible" requirements under the Yarovaya laws.

Durov, who launched Telegram with his brother in 2013, announced in 2014 that he had left Russia after he was forced to sell his stake in VKontakte amid pressure from authorities.

The messaging app has become an influential forum for news and debate, featuring popular channels run by news sites, journalists, and political analysts.

Some governments have said Telegram is used by terrorist organizations to conduct operations in secret.

Durov published the FSB documents less than a day after Iranian news agencies reported that Tehran's prosecutor had filed criminal charges against Telegram's "management" over alleged extremist and pornographic content.

Telegram has more than 40 million users in Iran and around 10 million in Russia, Durov said in his September 27 post on Telegram.

German Klimenko, who advises Russian President Vladimir Putin on Internet-related issues, told reporters on September 27 that "sooner or later" Durov "will be forced to cooperate and institutionalize himself in Russia" and elsewhere, Russia's state-run TASS news agency reported.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service and Meduza