BARCELONA (Reuters) - Pavel Durov, founder of secure messaging app Telegram and VKontakte, lives in the vortex that now pits technology giant Apple against the FBI.
His current venture, Telegram, has been built from the ground up to resist government pressure, operating in a fashion more akin to stateless whistleblower site WikiLeaks than Silicon Valley-rooted Apple, which is in a stand-off with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Durov has spent years fending off intrusions into his users’ communications, forging an uncompromising stance on privacy after founding popular site VKontakte, Russia’s answer to Facebook, then losing control of it for refusing Russian government demands to block dissidents.
“We had a simple choice: Either betray our values or keep our values and leave Russia to try to do something new,” he said in an interview on the sidelines of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Europe’s largest annual technology conference.
Since leaving Russia in 2014 to set up Telegram, Durov and his core team of 15 developers have become perpetual migrants, living only a few months at a time in any one location, starting in Berlin, then London, Silicon Valley, Finland and currently, Barcelona. The company is incorporated in multiple jurisdictions, including Britain.
Telegram, a tenth the size of Facebook-owned rival WhatsApp, has caught on in many corners of the globe including for a while with Islamic State as an ultra-secure way to quickly upload and share videos, texts and voice messages.
Authorities in China, Iran and Russia have threatened or taken action to block its service.
“We are not willing to compromise our values in order to increase our market share,” Durov said.
Nonetheless, Telegram has grown like a weed in many emerging markets since launching 2-1/2 years ago. On Tuesday, it said it now has 100 million active monthly users. Members trade 15 billion messages a day.
Telegram is widely used in the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia and Latin America, and has become Iran’s most popular way for smartphone users to communicate while dodging the Islamic Republic’s “morality police”.
In a case highlighting the tensions between privacy and security in an age of pervasive electronics, the FBI is pressing Apple to unlock an iPhone linked to the December shootings in San Bernardino, California, in which 14 people were killed and 22 wounded.
Durov inevitably sides with Apple and its CEO, Tim Cook.
“There’s always a risk that your iPhone can be stolen, and the people who stole it can use the data, your private photos, etc to blackmail you,” he said. Forcing Apple to build tools to defeat its own security methods would set a dangerous precedent, he added.
Highlighting the essential paradox of his absolutist stand, Telegram temporarily became a preferred app for Islamic State to distribute its violent propaganda, including taking credit for the Paris attacks in November that left 130 people dead.
Since then, Telegram has had only partial success with efforts to dislodge online jihadists from its platform, similar to the struggle that bigger sites such as Twitter and Facebook have struggled to control.
It’s an effort that half of the company’s 30 less technical employees remain busy doing, taking down 10 to 12 jihadist sites per day, Durov said. This so-called “abuse team” is made up of remote workers from several countries, with no central office location.
Telegram, whose services remain entirely free to users, has no plans to introduce advertising to support its growth but holds out the modern rebel entrepreneur’s goal of building a viable business.
“Making profits will never be a goal for Telegram,” its site says, and if it runs out of money, “we’ll invite our users to donate and add non-essential paid options to break even.”
“This set of values does not necessarily prevent us from earning money,” Durov told Reuters. “I believe that at some point we should come up with a business model that would make us sustainable.”
The company’s operations are funded by Durov with some of the up to $300 million he reportedly took away from the forced sale when he was pushed out of VKontakte.
Durov said he is bound by a legal agreement tied to the share sale not to disclose its value, saying only that he was “extremely lucky” to sell out before the Russian economy went into a tailspin in 2014.
He is looking to make a splash among world tech leaders on Tuesday night by hosting a party featuring up-and-coming British pop singer Tom Odell and Grammy award-winning producer/DJ Mark Ronson.
Additional reporting by Paul Sandle in Barcelona and Douglas Busvine in New Delhi; Editing by Hugh Lawson