How Telegram Conquered Uzbekistan

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Why you should care

Activists’ favorite app is just an everyday tool in Central Asia’s most populous nation.

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Police and criminals normally operate in different worlds, but not in Uzbekistan. There, all you have to do is open up your Telegram app, where you can report a traffic violation to authorities while texting your drug dealer. 

Secure messaging app Telegram has become synonymous with protests around the world. It’s been popular on underground channels in Iran since 2015, and figured prominently in activist movements from Puerto Rico to Hong Kong. But in Uzbekistan, it’s not just protesters who’ve embraced the app. It’s business, government, and yes, the police. In fact:

Telegram is more popular in Uzbekistan than anywhere else in the world.

That’s according to AppAnnie, which tracks app usage by Android users. The next biggest user of Telegram is Hong Kong, where authorities are considering censoring it due to its association with recent protests. Telegram is the most popular messaging app in only two other countries: Iran, where it’s banned, and Ethiopia. Telegram is also banned in China, Pakistan and Russia. The app had around 200 million users worldwide in March 2018, compared to about 1.5 billion for WhatsApp.

Telegram was founded by Pavel Durov, 34, a billionaire known to some as the Russian Mark Zuckerberg. He made his fortune founding Vkontakte, the most popular social network in Russia, but was exiled in 2014 over his refusal to cooperate with security services. He created Telegram in 2013. This May, he published a manifesto attacking competitor WhatsApp, which he says lacks security. Telegram’s encryption is one of the reasons it’s become popular with protest movements — and why governments, including Russia, Pakistan and parts of India, have moved to ban the app altogether. It’s also known for its security, though recently activists in Hong Kong say government agencies exploited a bug in the app — popular with local democratic movements — to obtain phone numbers from group messages.

In Uzbekistan, though, Telegram is king. Any visitor will likely be advised to install it in order to get around.  

“Telegram is just an ordinary messenger. But for us, it is a social network,” says Uzbek blogger Umid Gafurov. “I have WhatsApp only on my old phone. I use it only when I need to talk with foreign partners … It is impossible to find a person in Uzbekistan who doesn’t use Telegram.” News sites publish to the app, and businesses create Telegram bots to sell goods, deliver food and advertise to potential customers.

“Telegram has gained enormous popularity in Uzbekistan among all layers of the population, having replaced many communication tools, including email, Skype and telephone,” says Azamat Atajanov, an editor of popular media site Gazeta.uz, which publishes via Telegram as well as on Facebook and its own site. Atajanov praises Telegram’s speed, ease of use, file-sharing options, audio and video messaging, group chats and other options which “make it currently the best way of communication in Uzbekistan.” 

Part of that has to do with speed. Uzbekistan’s internet speeds ranks 124th in the world, so the relatively small size of the Telegram app gives it an edge. That has also spurred news outlets like Davletov or Qoshni Mahalla, which publish only via Telegram, allowing their users to make the most of the internet speeds they have.  

In 2017, Russia issued a new law requiring all messenger apps to provide encryption keys to authorities if so ordered. But with Telegram that’s impossible: Encryption is stored on individual phones rather than in the cloud. The app was banned last spring, but has had little practical effect — while Telegram functions more slowly, it’s still available. 

Technology - The 2016 Mobile World Congress

Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov.

Source AOP.Press/Corbis via Getty

By contrast, Uzbekistan’s government doesn’t try to fight Telegram. Instead, it uses the app. The Ministry of Justice opened a channel to promote the rule of law posting advice and FAQs about current legislation. “After our success, other governmental offices have agreed that Telegram messenger is the best way to spread information,” said Furqat Tojiev, a department head in the Uzbek Ministry of Justice. Other offices like Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Public Education have followed suit.

One popular Telegram bot allows people to send photos of different violations directly to the police. The app is also reportedly popular among criminals.

Having conquered Uzbekistan, Durov — who now lives in Dubai — hasn’t stopped. In June, he announced via the app that he was giving up food in an attempt to boost his creativity. “Obviously I might lose some muscle mass as a result,” he wrote, “but I believe that if I manage to come up with new great ideas for Telegram during the fast, it will be beneficial for all of the millions of Telegram users.” Uzbekistan will be waiting. 

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