Telegram, the "safe app" that the National Court considers a hotbed of piracy

Telegram, the “safe app” that the National Court considers a hotbed of piracy

“Telegram is a messaging app focused on speed and security.” This is how the platform defines itself. With 900 million users worldwide, it is the second most used platform after WhatsApp. To occupy that position, Telegram has based its growth on two pillars: privacy and the efficiency of its system for uploading files and accessing them from any device. These are the two aspects that have put it in the eye of the storm in Spain, after the National Court ordered its precautionary closure for hosting copyrighted content.

The decision was taken by Judge Santiago Pedraz following a complaint from Mediaset, Antena 3, Movistar and the Audiovisual Producers’ Rights Management Entity Egeda, who accuse the messaging system of being used to redistribute their content without their permission. Telegram’s lack of cooperation with the judge has triggered the closure order, an unprecedented measure in Europe.

Telegram has around 8.5 million users in Spain. According to a recent survey by the CNMC, 18% of Internet users use it. According to data from Statista, 26% of its users open it several times a day and 28% open it at least once. However, its use as an illegal file downloading platform is by no means the majority one, nor is it what has made it a popular app.

However, efficiency when uploading content and allowing access to it is one of its hallmarks. The app itself boasts of its “powerful file sharing options”: “Unlike WhatsApp, Telegram is cloud-based messaging with constant synchronization. As a result, you can access your messages from different devices at the same time, including tablets and computers, and share an unlimited number of photos, videos and files (doc, zip, mp3, etc.) of up to 2 gigabytes each,” the app itself explains.

This is in addition to its robust encryption of both conversations and files, and its “revolutionary privacy policy.” This is based on avoiding the practices of US platforms, which leave security holes through which the country’s security services can sneak in—as revealed by Edward Snowden—and also not basing its business on extracting personal data for advertising.

“We believe that the two most important components of Internet privacy should be: 1) Protecting your private conversations from prying third parties, such as officials, employees, etc. 2) Protecting your personal data from third parties, such as vendors, advertisers, etc.,” they explain.

The app closes the loop by warning that it does not consider copyright as a legitimate justification for intruding on private conversations. “All chats and groups on Telegram are private between their participants. We do not process any requests related to them,” the app explains in its section on copyright claims.

Avoid censorship

Although this series of tools can be very useful for piracy, that is not what has made Telegram the most used messaging app in the world, behind WhatsApp.

Telegram was founded in the summer of 2013 by Pavel Durov, a 29-year-old who was already a billionaire after having founded and sold VK, the Russian Facebook. But Durov’s story is not like that of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who become billionaires through technology.

Durov had been forced to divest himself of VK due to threats from the Kremlin, which would soon force him into exile as well. Vladimir Putin’s government had tried to access personal data of Ukrainian activists, but Durov and his team refused. The response was to give up control of the social network or face the consequences.

The events with VK were decisive for the development of Telegram. Both Durov, who is now 40 years old and considers himself stateless, and his team of developers from the University of St. Petersburg who were also forced to leave Russia, were determined to ensure that the same thing that happened to VK could not happen to Telegram. They forged the messaging app as a safe option for telecommunications and with much more lax moderation than the other mainstream social networks. Its headquarters are in Dubai.

This is what has catapulted Telegram around the world as a preferred option for activists, but also for extremist groups that use it as a safe place to organize or share information. The application is frequently criticized for its channels with Nazi content or for hosting child pornography. It was, for example, the medium used by those who organized the neo-Nazi protests that took place during the pandemic.

Durov has recently refused to block Hamas channels, which are banned on other platforms. “Hamas used Telegram to warn civilians in Ashkelon to leave the area before its missile attacks. Would closing its channel help save lives or endanger more lives?” its founder said in a recent message to his followers. “It is always tempting to act on emotional impulses. But such complex situations require deep reflection that must also take into account the differences between social platforms,” he continued.

Now, Judge Pedraz accuses the platform of also hosting copyrighted content without permission from its owners and has ordered its precautionary closure in Spain. elDiario.es has contacted Telegram to include its position in this report, but has not yet received a response.

How Telegram makes money

Telegram is not profitable. It is supported by the fortune of its founding team and donations. However, for the past two years the platform’s main priority has been to become a sustainable service.

According to Durov, they are close to achieving this. Their two main sources of income are sponsored messages, which are advertisements that appear on some public channels; and premium subscriptions, which allow users to unlock exclusive additional features.

They may not make much money, but the key to Telegram is not to need too much. “Millions of people have signed up and shared content on Telegram in the last hour, while Instagram and Facebook were down,” boasted Durov two weeks ago, during the last major service failure of these networks. “Interestingly, Telegram is more reliable than these services, despite spending several times less on infrastructure per user. We also have about 1,000 times (!) fewer full-time employees than Meta.”

According to the Financial Times, Telegram only has about 50 full-time employees to serve its 900 million users. Perhaps one of the reasons for its lack of cooperation with justice, which has been repeated in other parts of the world: in 2023, a Brazilian judge ordered its closure in the country for not cooperating with the investigation of the far-right groups that attacked Brasilia.

Other secure applications

Telegram is the most well-known secure messaging app, but not the only one and not the most secure. Signal, the app recommended by Edward Snowden himself, is known for its strong commitment to user security and privacy. Its development is supported by a non-profit organization called Signal Foundation.

One of Signal’s main promoters shares a certain background with Durov. He is Brian Acton, co-founder of WhatsApp, who left the company after disagreements with Mark Zuckerberg regarding the privacy of its users. He is currently Signal’s CEO.

Other options include Threema, a European app based on privacy and total anonymity (albeit paid), or Wire, which offers a variety of features, including text and voice messaging, video calling, file sharing, and conferencing. Like Signal and Threema, Wire is also open source.

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