TL;DR

Everyone thought it was crazy to assume the public clouds would never be blocked -- until they were, because a single customer upset an entire government. Telegram, by way of dodging Russian regulation, might be breaking the internet in Russia.


Russia blocks millions of Amazon Web Services IP addresses

Telegram, the secure messaging app, has been fighting a months-long battle with the Russian government over its customer's encryption keys. When it wouldn't co-operate, the group threatened it would cut off access within the country to Telegram until it capitulated.

Russia's telecommunications group, Roskomnadzor, did exactly that late last week. It cut off access to Telegram within the country, but the company had planned for this: by moving to Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud quietly around the same time.

By doing this, Telegram successfully averted the block, because everyone assumed that there is no way any ISP or connectivity provider would block two eentire public clouds... right? Well, now we have the answer: oh yes, they would block a public cloud. Two, even.

Roskomnadzor blocked 1.8 million IP addresses this morning, suddenly blackholing access to public clouds used by many other businesses inside Russia, and only sort-of crippling Telegram in the country at the same time: it's still reportedly working for many users.

There are reports that the action has downed mobile carriers, cash registers, banks and other services, but the ban persists regardless. Many of us build right on top of Amazon assuming that short of a world-ending event it's unlikely to go away; most companies don't even really consider such an event a threat.

Russia's regulators are notorious for demanding unprecedented access to company data after a law passed in 2016 that requires social media services to hand encryption keys over at will, without a court order. Telegram, by trying to dodge the blocking, has dragged Amazon and Google into the fight too.

A big question presents itself at this point: will Google and Amazon be willing to protect Telegram when they're causing massive issues for other customers? In the past Amazon has threatened to drop AWS customers that use its services to break laws in local jurisdictions in a situation that was eerily similar: 

Half the Internet was not blocked, but nevertheless, it had some effect, and as a result, Amazon came to us, whose service we used, and Amazon asked us not to do what we did to circumvent the blocks using the Amazon platform

That first ban affected a company called Zello which offered a similar messaging platform, however didn't receive as much widespread coverage because it's nowhere near as large as Telegram, which has 180 million active users.

This is likely to be a long, painful fight for Telegram: if the cloud providers do decide to move to drop the company, it's unclear what it could do in response short of cutting off all of its Russian users or building its own dedicated infrastructure.

We all expected digital warfare to happen, but I'm not sure anyone expected the actual clouds themselves to be weaponized. Because so much infrastructure is dependent on Amazon's sprawling cloud, it's clearly simple to weaponize it by simply breaking it at scale until someone capitulates.


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