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Telegram suspension in Spain: ‘It’s like closing a province because a robbery occurred there’

The lawsuit is set to affect the 8.5 million people who use the application’s messaging services. But the legal, moral and technological implications of the decision are far more reaching

A woman consults the Telegram application on her cell phone.
A woman consults the Telegram application on her cell phone.Claudio Álvarez
Enrique Alpañés

Telegram is the subject of a legal dispute in Spain. Spanish media firms — including Mediaset, Atresmedia and Movistar Plus — filed a lawsuit against the instant messaging app for its alleged unauthorized use of copyright-protected audiovisual content and requested that it be suspended as a precautionary measure. On Friday, Judge Santiago Pedraz from Spain’s high court, the Audiencia Nacional, agreed to suspend Telegram, while the probe into the allegations is carried out. The decision came after the application refused to cooperate with the court, and means that the more than 8.5 million Telegram users in Spain may be blocked from using the app.

“It’s like deciding to close a province of our country because a case of drug trafficking or a robbery occurred within the territory,” said Fernando Suárez, the president of the General Council of Professional Colleges of Computer Engineering of Spain, on Saturday. But the case is nuanced. Continuing with the simile, it is as if the leader of that province refused to collaborate with the police in order to guarantee the anonymity and freedom of the entire population, including criminals. And this position has opened a debate that raises questions about privacy, freedom of expression and copyright protection.

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 it grants to the user. Unlike Meta, Telegram refuses to share information with the authorities. This has made Telegram popular among dissidents in authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Iran, where it has been used to organize protests. But the service’s privacy protections have also led to a rise in sensitive content. On Telegram, there are channels for drug sales, far-right activities, disinformation, the dissemination of violent content, child pornography and terrorism. In fact, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Moscow attack on 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. Precisely for this reason, it is much more popular than the dark web. Anyone can download and start using Telegram, even if they do not have any computer knowhow. More than 900 million people use Telegram. Its interface is similar to that of WhatsApp. “The architecture is not very different,” adds the expert, “but in WhatsApp there are back doors for the NSA and different intelligence agencies to enter. Not on Telegram. Nothing is shared there.”

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 to close its service in a country.

What the Spanish justice system intends to do is ask the Spanish operators to filter the content and block access to the 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 has a proxy service to make it appear that the connection is coming from another country.

This is what is happening in countries like China, Cuba, Pakistan, Iran and Thailand, where it is blocked, but still used by many to this circumvention method. It is also happening in Brazil, where a judge suspended the service last April because the company refused to collaborate in an investigation into neo-Nazi groups. “All large social media apps are easy targets for criticism due to the content they host,” Durov said on his Telegram channel at the time. “I can’t recall any major social platform whose moderation has been consistently praised by traditional media.” The businessman said that over time they would resolve any potential challenge “with efficiency, innovation and respect for privacy and freedom of speech.”

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

Adsuara believes that what is important is not so much the substance of the lawsuit. “This debate is old, we already had it in the 1990s with P2P networks, which they tried to close,” he explains. Back then, judges ruled that sharing content between individuals is not a crime if there is no profit motive. Sharing songs on eMule in the early 2000s is as legal as uploading a TV series to Telegram today. As long as you don’t charge for it. But more importantly, many people do not use these applications for this purpose.

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

The lawsuit focuses on copyright, but it is a procedural aspect. It is the platform’s lack of collaboration with democratic regimes that has sparked a deeper debate. All the experts who spoke to EL PAÍS agree that the judge’s precautionary suspension of Telegram is disproportionate and ineffective. They point out that it is surprising that more serious and important investigations for society have not been carried out into the platform. According to the experts, there is more at stake in this legal battle than just pirated soccer games. It is about deciding whether we want an internet with greater anonymity, or with less impunity.

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