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A tech individualist for a post-Snowden world

Putin opponent Pavel Durov founded Russia’s biggest social network – now he’s on a mission to change the way you send messages

When Pavel Durov founded Russia’s answer to Facebook, VKontakte, in 2006, he was in the right place at the right time. The country was poised to take part in the global social networking boom, and Russia’s Internet was barely regulated – a tech idealist’s dream. “You could do a lot in that environment,” he tells me over email. “The government ignored the Internet, and ignoring things is probably the most undervalued function of any government on our planet.” Putin’s subsequent campaign against the Internet sphere is well documented – his government now monitors all popular blogs, censoring at will – but Durov’s ousting from the site he founded has been one of the most high-profile casualties of the fall-out. After continually defying the Kremlin with his taste for subversion – notably, he responded to demands to shut down pages of rival politicians by tweeting this picture – the final straw came when Durov refused to give up the details of Ukrainian protesters using the network to the authorities. By this time last year, Putin’s allies had all but taken over, and Durov was dismissed. After that, there wasn’t much reason to stay in Russia. But the trail that Durov has left behind him since is one that, in a post-Snowden world, is in everyone’s interest to follow. It’s a trail that leads to Berlin, and a new messaging app that might just be a game changer.

The app is called Telegram, and it promises to bring the right to privacy back into your everyday messaging. Like WhatsApp, Telegram offers individual and group messaging, and file-sharing; widely different from WhatsApp is its heavily encrypted structure, open API and robustly anti-commercial manifesto. In a world where Facebook simply buys up its competition – including WhatsApp, for a cool $22 billion – the fact that Telegram is not for sale is a remarkable selling point. That, and the fact that it does a mean line in art historical emoji stickers. As the app experiences unprecedented growth across the world (daily messages sent in the UK now number over eight million, with well over 50 million users worldwide) we spoke to Durov about whether Facebook’s days are numbered, how Russians can combat government injustice, and why he thinks a country run by a start-up would be a great idea.

How did your interest in technology and the Internet begin?

Pavel Durov: When I was 11, I started building games for IBM PC XT. When I turned 17, I created a website for the students at my University. It enabled students to share lectures and discuss exams, and became popular very quickly.

And why did you start VKontakte?

Pavel Durov: Me and a former classmate decided to build a tool for students to keep in touch. He provided the seed funding, while I built the website. We launched it in late 2006.

What changed in Russia between that time and your leaving the country?

Pavel Durov: Political oppositionary activity on the Russian Internet caused the government to pass laws limiting both service operators and users. As a result, the Russian tech environment became much less liberal, losing freedom as one of its competitive advantages.

“Technology is the key weapon for the new to fight the old in every industry and every country” – Pavel Durov

At what point during your later years at VKontakte did you feel the least safe? From your previous interviews, the FSS (Federal Security Service) waiting with guns outside your apartment doors stands out…  

Pavel Durov: Armed police at my apartment doors in 2011 was scary, but the sudden – and not exactly legal – takeover of 48 per cent of VKontakte, that coincided with a fabricated case against myself in April 2013, was more frightening.

How do you think Russia’s recent political history – the high-profile arrest and jailing of Pussy Riot, anti-gay laws, and military involvement in the Ukraine, for example – has been felt by the younger generation in these countries? What can they do to combat government injustice?

Pavel Durov: It has been felt (by a younger generation) the same way as it has been felt by the older generation. The intellectual elite are worried, while the masses couldn’t care less. I think that technology is the key weapon for the new to fight the old in every industry and every country. Services like Uber and Airbnb help circumvent middlemen and overregulation while social networks and messaging apps allow for truth to spread and lies to be exposed.

Facebook has increasingly proved its propensity to be leaned on by governments – such as its recently shutting down a support page for Alexei Navalny. What’s your opinion on Facebook’s future? I wonder if such actions will ever lead to a significant decrease of users. 

Pavel Durov: Facebook as a service is far from perfect. It is already losing traction within the younger generation, but so far they’ve managed to acquire all their serious competitors. I suspect this won’t always be the case. There are companies that are not for sale. Telegram is one.

How is Telegram different from other messaging apps available?

Pavel Durov: In December 2011, I got a lot of attention from the Russian security agencies because I refused to shut down opposition groups at VK. So in 2012 my brother and I built an encrypted messaging app for our personal use – we wanted to be able to securely pass on information to each other, in an environment where WhatsApp and other tools were easily monitored by the authorities. After Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 we understood the problem was not unique to our situation and existed in other countries. So we released the encrypted messaging app for the general public.

But we didn’t stop at just being the most secure messaging app – we designed Telegram to be also the fastest, easiest to use and most versatile tool. You can do so much more with Telegram – use it on several devices at once including laptops and tablets, send huge videos, instantly search all of your messages, set self-destruct timers for messages, edit photos with Photoshop-class settings, reply to specific messages in group chats, set up an additional pass-lock on the app – and much more, all of this in a simple, fast and slick interface. This is what WhatsApp should have been and failed to be.

On your site you say that Telegram doesn’t belong to any country in particular. Could you explain this position a little more? Does your sense of being a global citizen come out of your experiences in Russia, or is it more a reflection of a connected generation’s disregard for geographical boundaries?

Pavel Durov: I am equally unhappy with any involvement into people’s lives by big governments – overregulation and over-taxation in the EU makes me just as sad as the cases of the prosecution of opposition in Russia. There are no genuinely free countries – freedom of speech and self-expression and entrepreneurship is limited almost everywhere, but in different ways.

So why have you based Telegram in Berlin? What’s the atmosphere of the technology scene, there?

Pavel Durov: The history of this once divided city made it a really unique place. Today Berlin is at the intersection of Western and Eastern Europe, and it combines the advantages of both worlds. Having said this, our team is not stuck in Berlin – we travel a lot, and may decide to relocate to any other place by the end of this year. 

What do you think of the seasteading movement, whose members want to create floating city-states – self-styled “startup countries”? Member of the movement, Balaji Srinivasan, was quoted last October as saying “We want to show what a society run by Silicon Valley would look like”. Thoughts?

Pavel Durov: They have my full support. The world desperately needs more experimentation and innovation when it comes to education, taxation, immigration policies, voting systems etc. But the progress is slow. There’s little innovation in social and other policies because the UN and the existing players won’t just let you start a new country.

Regulation around net neutrality is undergoing important shifts in most countries. Could you explain your position on net neutrality?

Pavel Durov: Obviously a number of big corporations are lobbying laws worldwide to get rid of net neutrality – and get rid of unwanted competition as a result. I believe that if we lose net neutrality, the speed of innovation and level of competition within the Internet industry will decrease drastically. It is our duty both as consumers and as prosumers to stand up against these initiatives. 

Do you think that your own messaging app, and other services, represents a larger shift in the industry? In a Post-Snowden world, many are more aware about how their data is being used and are turning to alternatives.

Pavel Durov: People definitely become more privacy conscious and are getting more interested in the ways their data is used. For example, the fact that Telegram hasn’t disclosed a single byte of data to any third party since launch date accounts for some of its popularity. However, strict privacy policy and strong encryption alone won’t make people switch to your service. To attract 50 million active users in an overcrowded market, Telegram had to be better in every aspect: higher delivery speed, sleeker design, superior usability, more features in more frequent updates. Only this way you can deliver enhanced privacy and security to millions of users who might have missed the importance of Snowden’s revelations.