Germany seeks to discipline Telegram messaging, nest of conspiracies

Posted 26 January, 2022

Spread of conspiracy theories or even calls for murder: encrypted Telegram messaging, particularly popular with anti-vaccine movements, is in the sights of the German authorities who accuse it of not acting against the dissemination of hate speech.

Opponents of vaccination against Covid-19 have been mobilized for weeks in Germany where they regularly demonstrate throughout the country during rallies sometimes accompanied by incidents.

The tension is likely to show another notch when the question of compulsory vaccination arrives on Wednesday in the Bundestag. No bill has yet been tabled in parliament but the deputies will start preliminary discussions on the vaccination obligation, supported by Chancellor Olaf Scholz but which divides society and the political class.

In this electric context, the "hate propagators" are in the sights of the government and more particularly the encrypted messaging Telegram.

Justice Minister Nancy Faeser wants to present an action plan by Easter to force the platform to remove hateful messages and identify its authors.

Some "anti-vax" discussion groups bring together up to 200,000 people, according to an AFP count.

In the absence of cooperation, the minister does not rule out an outright ban on the application in Germany.

Before that "all other options must have failed", she said, acknowledging that European cooperation was necessary on this sensitive subject.

In mid-December, the German police had carried out searches and seized weapons during a raid in Dresden (west) after the broadcast of death threats targeting, on an anti-vaccine Telegram channel, the Minister-President of the Land.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz then promised to lead an implacable fight against a "minority of extremists".

 

"Freethinkers"

 

Germany passed a controversial law in 2017 strengthening its arsenal against internet threats: it requires social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to remove criminal content and report it to the police for possible prosecution.

Facebook had thus announced last September the deletion of accounts, pages, and groups linked to the small group of “free thinkers” in Germany, a movement hostile to restrictions intended to fight against Covid-19.

"Because big platforms like Facebook no longer allow racist, anti-Semitic hate and far-right content like Holocaust denial, people who want to spread this are looking for new ways. Currently the most popular in Germany is Telegram," explains AFP Simone Rafael, digital manager of the Foundation for the fight against racism Amadeu Antonio.

If Facebook has an interest in collaborating with the German authorities and has gradually submitted to national legislation, this is not the case for Telegram, according to the researcher who specifies that the majority of its users have nothing to do with the anti-vaccine movement.

"Telegram does not cooperate with the judicial or security authorities, not even on indisputably punishable and reprehensible subjects such as child pornography", adds Ms. Rafael, believing that "this deprives the State of any capacity for action".

Many requests for deletion of content sent by the German Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) to the platform have so far remained a dead letter.

 

Censure?

 

Another possibility would be to require Google or Apple to remove it from their download catalog. However, this would not affect users who already own the app.

For Ms. Rafael, the only way to overcome the service is to ban it completely in Germany.

It would then be the first Western country to opt for such a radical measure against the messaging system created in 2013 by the brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, two opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin who sought to avoid surveillance by their country's secret services.

Bans and regulations against Telegram already exist in China, India, or Russia.

“Such measures would send a very bad signal, warns digital journalist Markus Reuter. another side, we want to disable this service here" in Germany.

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