Why Pavel Durov founded the anti-authoritarian app Telegram

Telegram social messaging app is known worldwide as a go-to platform for crypto enthusiasts and populist uprisings. It didn’t happen like that by chance.

Its founder, Pavel Durov, had his reasons for wanting to create an app that protected user privacy and could facilitate uncensored communications while giving authoritarian regimes the middle finger. He had previously served as CEO of Russian social media giant VK.com, but the Russian government later expelled him.

Building a major social media platform is hard enough. Having pulled off the feat twice, Durov has become something of a global celebrity. The story of how the enigmatic billionaire came to set up his businesses, developed a penchant for free-spirited trolling and came to help reverse government overreach has become part of lore Internet.

Telegram currently has 500 million users worldwide and has proven particularly popular with political activists. But before launching it, he was best known for founding VK, which is by far the most popular social network among Russian speakers, with over 500 million registered accounts. He is also known as one of the founding fathers of Runet (Russian internet). His clash with the Russian government and dramatic departure from VK only cemented his storied reputation among internet-savvy Russians.

The beginnings of VK

Much of Durov’s early career was inspired by the Web2 boom that was in full swing in Silicon Valley. When VK launched in 2006, MySpace reigned supreme and Facebook was about to strike 12 million users. VK was conceived as an attempt to introduce a version of Facebook into Russian cyberspace. And much like its analogue across the pond, the company has its roots on a college campus.

During his studies at the prestigious St. Petersburg State University, Durov developed a number of online resources for his students, including the academic forum spbgu.ru. In his senior year, he teamed up with his old friends Yitzchak Mirilashvili and Lev Leviev, and his math whiz brother to create a college-focused social network (earning him the nickname “the Mark Zuckerberg of Russia”). Mirilashvili and Leviev, along with Mirilashvili’s father, started the business which now resides on the eponymous VK.com site.

VK had all the features familiar to Facebook users: a user profile, a wall for posting content, direct messaging, and most importantly, a display of users’ personal information. Durov presented the website as a non-anonymous extension of spbgu.ru, available only by invitation from other users. As VK quickly became a hit, the invite requirement was dropped and its user count skyrocketed.

The success of the Internet in the 2000s

In less than a year, VK overtook domestic rival Odnoklassniki as the most popular social network on the Runet. According to Odnoklassniki founder Albert Popov, this was partly due to VK’s willingness to tolerate explicit content and copyright violations on the platform. While Odnoklassniki focused on connecting middle-aged people with their old classmates, VK became a one-stop-shop for the young and hip. Users have taken to VK.com to connect with old friends, find new ones, look for work and illegally listen to the latest hit album.

It was a good time to be a young capitalist in Russia. The country was experiencing a golden age that was later known as the “heavy 2000s”. This era was marked by relative political freedom and rapid economic expansion fueled by record oil prices. Russia’s main streets were filled with storefronts of luxury brands as the new rich went on a conspicuous consumer frenzy.

The emerging middle class has embraced the newly accessible convenience of fast-food chains, cheap cross-border travel, and various international products flooding the domestic market. Entrepreneurs made a fortune by creating analogues of Western services for Russian consumers. And urban creatives looked to the future with optimism as they thrived on the westernization of their society.

Trouble begins at VK

By the early 2010s, VK had over one hundred million users, enjoying record revenues from in-app purchases and advertising. Its broad reach caught the attention of the Russian government, which was increasingly keen to clamp down on dissent on the internet. Durov angered authorities by refusing to shut down a number of political groups and profiles on the platform following the 2011 protests. He responded to their request by Tweeter a photo of a dog blowing a raspberry.

Mail.ru Group, a Russian tech conglomerate with close ties to the government and one of VK’s biggest backers, was meanwhile trying to consolidate its control over the company. In a now famous response, he turned them off and called Mail.ru a “garbage wallet company”. After a government-aligned fund took control of 48% of VK’s capital, Durov was subjected to a media smear campaign and accused of embezzling company funds. Durov’s home and VK’s office were raided by law enforcement.

A video would have circulated showing Durov driving a Mercedez encountering a traffic cop and fleeing the scene. At the end of 2013, Durov sold his shares in the company and hung up his CEO hat. He left Russia soon after. He later revealed that he made the decision after refusing a request from Russian authorities to hand over the data of users involved in staging protests in Kyiv.

The rise of Telegram

After emigrating, Durov focused on developing Telegram. Then known as Telegra.ph, the app was launched when Durov was still in Russia. But this time, his aspirations were bigger than Runet, as he envisioned a global platform for anyone looking for a secure way to communicate. Durov was quick to use his personal story and reputation as a subversive libertarian to lend credibility to the product. Durov cited a law enforcement raid on his apartment as the main inspiration for the venture.

Determined to keep Telegram independent of corporate and government influence, Durov funded the venture largely out of his own pocket and by selling bonds. It refuses to allow ads on the platform, which means it hasn’t generated any revenue yet. In 2018, Durov tried unsuccessfully to raise funds via an ICO, which ended in a $18.2 million fine by the SEC. Telegram was ordered to repay investors over $1 billion it raised in the coin offering.

Telegram as a media powerhouse

Durov has repeatedly pointed out that his app does not monitor personal chats and, unlike other messaging apps, refuses to comply with government requests for user information. Telegram, however, had its own small-scale security incidents. In 2016, hackers hacked into the accounts of two Russian opposition activists and German police infiltrated a ultranationalist group chat in 2015.

Despite these incidents, the app remains a major means of communication for citizens of authoritarian regimes. This has as much to do with how the app differentiates itself with its features as it does with its privacy policies. Telegram group chats can accommodate up to 200,000 participants, while WhatsApp limits its groups to 256 people.

Telegram channels allow their administrators to broadcast information to an unlimited number of people, allowing them to function as media organizations. Some of the biggest Telegram channels have over a million subscribers and act as key independent media players in the midst of political events. Telegram channels have played a central role in covering protests in Hong Kong and Belarus, and more recently the war in Ukraine.

This has made them a frequent target of repressive measures by undemocratic governments. In 2017, Russian authorities attempted to ban Telegram after it refused to share encryption keys with the country’s main security agency. The same year, he was temporarily blocked in Iran during a series of mass protests.

Despite the setbacks, Telegram continues to experience explosive growth and not just in countries ruled by dictators. It has more than doubled its user base over the past three years. It is currently the most popular social media app in Russia and Germany, and ranks second in the United States and the United Kingdom. And since January 2021, it hosts the official accounts of 10 world leaders.

Fight against terrorism and disinformation

Telegram has been criticized for be the app of choice for terrorists. He replied with banning dozens of ISIS channels and others with calls for violence, including those used by Americans far-right groups. Despite this, Durov expressed his commitment to tolerating any non-violent content, such as misinformation about Covid and vaccines.

Meanwhile, Durov keeps a low public profile and rarely agrees to be interviewed. From time to time he offers a bit of wisdom to fans about the dangers of overeating and the propaganda contained in the holidays. He prefers communicating with the world through Telegram and by sharing rare Instagram snippets of his life as a digital nomad.

Although Telegram is registered in the offshore destination of the British Virgin Islands, the domicile of its founder is unknown to the public. Although there have been some recent rumors about Durov receiving French citizenship, it’s probably safe to assume that his primary residence is in the ether.

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