Can Telegram be closed? Judge Pedraz’s order “is like closing a province because a robbery has occurred inside” | Technology

Telegram is the subject of a judicial dispute, in a debate at the intersection between privacy, freedom of expression and copyright. The more than eight and a half million users of the application in the country could see their access blocked, in a measure that has been taken at the request of Mediaset, Atresmedia and Movistar Plus. Media groups have denounced the application because, on some of its channels, content protected by copyright is shared. The judge of the National Court, Santiago Pedraz, has issued an order this Saturday so that, within three hours of receiving it, the operators suspend the resources associated with Telegram.

“It is as if it were decided to completely close a province of our country because a case of drug trafficking or a robbery occurred within the territory,” declared this Saturday the president of the General Council of Professional Colleges of Computer Engineering of Spain, Fernando Suárez. But the case has more nuances. Continuing with the simile, it is as if the leader of that province refused to collaborate with the police to guarantee the anonymity and freedom of the entire population, including criminals. And this attitude puts on the table a debate that transcends the legal.

Telegram is an instant messaging application, launched in 2013, and directed by Russian-born businessman Pavel Durov. Since its inception, it stood out as an alternative to WhatsApp for the freedom and privacy of the user, refusing to share information with the authorities, as the Meta application does. This made Telegram the communication channel used by dissidents in authoritarian regimes such as Russia or Iran, where it has been used to organize protests. But it has also caused channels of sensitive content to flourish, protected from anonymity: drug sales, far-right activities, disinformation, dissemination of violent content, child pornography or terrorism. Without going any further, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Moscow attack this Friday on its Telegram channel.

If WhatsApp were the internet, Telegram would be the dark web, an anarchic and anonymous place, with everything that entails. “The difference is that it is simpler, easier to use and much more democratized,” explains cybersecurity expert Rafel López, who accepts the comparison, although with nuances. Also, and precisely for this reason, it is much more popular. Anyone can download and start using Telegram even if they do not have computer knowledge. More than 900 million people have done it. Its interface is similar to that of WhatsApp. Their guts, too. “The architecture is not very different,” acknowledges the expert, “but in WhatsApp there are back doors for the NSA and different intelligence agencies to enter. Not on Telegram. Nothing is shared here.”

This virtual anonymity is guaranteed physically. While Meta’s servers are located in the area in which they operate, Telegram’s are scattered around the world. “The parent company is located in the British Virgin Islands; The operating company is based in Dubai; The legal domicile and headquarters are in London, and it has servers distributed throughout the world, often in countries that do not have collaboration treaties with third countries,” explains López. This makes it very difficult to force the company to hand over its data or close its service in a country.

What the Spanish justice system intends to do is ask the Spanish operators to filter the content and prohibit access to this network. “That can be done technologically, but it is not effective,” says the expert. “Telegram already has measures to prevent a national operator from blocking its service.” The application itself includes a service proxy to pretend that the connection is made from another country.

This is what happens in countries like China, Cuba, Pakistan, Iran and Thailand, where its use is prohibited, but many users systematically circumvent it. It also happened in Brazil, where a judge suspended the application’s service last April because the company refused to collaborate in an investigation against neo-Nazi groups. “All large social media applications are easy targets for criticism due to the content they host,” Durov then declared on his Telegram channel. “I don’t remember any major social platform whose moderation has been consistently praised by traditional media.” In any case, the businessman assured that over time they would resolve any challenge while respecting “efficiency, innovation, privacy and freedom of expression.”

“It is one thing that Telegram has emerged as a tool to fight against authoritarian regimes,” he says. Borja Adsuara Varela, expert in digital law. “But it is another thing to refuse to collaborate with a judge in a democratic state, because then we are facing a fight between the rule of law and the new feudal lords.”

Adsuara believes that what is important here is not so much the substance of the complaint. “This debate is old, we already had it in the nineties with P2P networks, which tried to close,” she explains. Then the judges decided that sharing content between individuals is not a crime if there is no profit motive. Sharing songs on eMule in the first two thousand years is as legal as uploading series to Telegram today. As long as you don’t charge for it. But, in addition, many users are not using these applications for this purpose.

The problem, the expert points out, is that there is a large company that refuses to collaborate with justice. And this one has decided to give it a try. “It would be unthinkable for a Spanish or European company to do it, for a judge to ask for data for an investigation and be denied it, putting the CEO in prison for obstruction of justice.”

The complaint from Mediaset, Atresmedia and Movistar Plus focuses on copyright, but it is a procedural aspect, the lack of collaboration of the application with democratic regimes, which has sparked a deeper debate. All the experts consulted agree in pointing out the disproportionate nature of the measures and their ineffectiveness. They highlight the surprising fact that they have not been taken with much more serious and relevant research for society. But they point out that in this legal battle, something more than the piracy of a couple of series or soccer games is being debated. It is about deciding whether we want a more anonymous Internet, or with less impunity.

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