In December, around a dozen anti-lockdown protesters gathered together on a cobbled street in the eastern German town of Grimma. It was not their chant of “peace, freedom, no dictatorship” that put the new German government on edge, but their location—outside the private home of Saxony’s regional health minister, Petra Köpping. The demonstration was interpreted as a targeted attack on democracy and its elected officials, made even more menacing by the protesters’ flaming torches, a symbol that has been associated with white nationalists since the 1920s.
In the aftermath, Köpping’s team say they suspect the protest against coronavirus restrictions had roots in the messaging app Telegram—where a video of the demonstration circulated afterward and where the minister had previously received threats. Köpping herself believes there is a direct link between Telegram and what happened. “People obviously used the app to meet up,” she says. Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.
German authorities believe Telegram has become the thread that ties together a series of violent incidents involving Germany’s anti-lockdown movement. Shortly after the protest outside Köpping’s home, armed German police said they searched five properties linked to a Telegram group where members discussed plans to assassinate Saxony’s prime minister, Michael Kretschmer, in retaliation for Covid restrictions. But when officials asked Telegram to tackle violence in the app’s public channels, they were met with silence. Letters, suggestions of fines, a Telegram-dedicated task force, and even a threat to ban the entire platform have all gone unanswered. Germany’s struggle to enforce its authority over Telegram is a warning for other governments currently drafting their own online safety laws: Even if lawmakers issue new rules, there is no guarantee platforms will follow them.
Telegram is one of Germany’s most popular online messengers. Around 7.8 million people in the country used the app in 2019, according to Statista. A more recent January survey by the official Federal Network Agency found 16 percent of people who regularly use online messenger services use Telegram—a 6 percent gain from 2019 (although still far below the most popular service, WhatsApp, which claimed a 93 percent share). Researchers have complained about extremists on Telegram for years. But during the pandemic, far-right follower numbers exploded in Germany, says Jakob Guhl, a research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a nonprofit that analyzes online extremism. Pre-pandemic, the biggest far-right figures had around 40,000 followers, he says. Now that number is above 200,000.
“Germany’s anti-lockdown movement strikes me as relatively large, fairly energized, and quite radical compared to other countries,” says Guhl. He argues that it connects groups that might not usually fit together. “It includes some people who were part of previously existing far-right movements but, more interestingly, it unites quite a lot of anti-vaxxers, people with interest in alternative lifestyles, alternative medicine, conspiracy theorists, people who adhere to QAnon.” On Telegram, that results in far-right content mixing with coronavirus conspiracies, such as claims that the virus is a pretext to install an authoritarian state and calls for violence against politicians. “It’s taken me by surprise how quickly people who hadn't been previously involved in ideological movements have been radicalized and quite how extreme and frequent the calls for violence are,” Guhl says.
Telegram’s silence on the issue of violent anti-lockdown content is infuriating a country that strongly believes free expression has limits, and legislates accordingly. In 2018, Germany began enforcing the Network Enforcement Act, or Netz DG, which aimed to make speech and symbols that were illegal offline—such as swastikas, Holocaust denial, or inciting violence against minority groups—illegal online too. Most social media platforms complied and even hired more German moderators to block content that was considered illegal locally. There was initially confusion about whether the law applied to Telegram when other messenger apps, like WhatsApp, were exempted because they were considered “individual communication services.” In 2021, the Justice Ministry publicly clarified that Telegram was required to follow the rules and told German media it had launched two fine proceedings against the app for noncompliance. Although the app could be used to communicate one-on-one, the ministry said, it also gave people the ability to set up groups that had over 200,000 members or create channels for broadcasting to unlimited audiences.
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That attempt to publicly shame Telegram into action, however, did not work. The Federal Office of Justice (BfJ) confirmed to WIRED that those proceedings are currently in the hearing stage, and it has since sent two requests for legal assistance to the United Arab Emirates. “That's the problem that we have with Telegram, they are hiding in Dubai,” says Josephine Ballon, a lawyer at HateAid, an organization representing local and federal politicians who have received death threats on Telegram. However it is unclear whether Telegram actually uses the office listed as its address. Although the app’s CEO was pictured with the Crown Prince of Dubai early last year, multiple German newspapers, including the tabloid Bild, have sent journalists to Telegram’s office and found that no one answers the door. “Even if they would get any assistance [from the UAE], I believe no one is actually sitting in Dubai,” says Chan-jo Jun, a lawyer specializing in online hate speech. He believes Telegram’s management is more likely to be found in Europe or in Russia but that if the app had a clear address, that would not necessarily solve the issue. “The biggest problem is they are not willing to cooperate.”
Germany’s readiness to regulate speech clashes with Telegram’s libertarian values. The messenger, which was founded by Russian-born entrepreneur Pavel Durov in London nine years ago, has a proud tradition of ignoring government requests. “To this day, we have disclosed 0 bytes of user data to third parties, including governments,” the company says on its website. However Germany’s new Social Democrat interior minister, Nancy Faeser, is not deterred. Since she assumed her role in December, the country's stance against Telegram has dramatically hardened. In an interview with newspaper Die Zeit, Faeser threatened to ban Telegram outright. After her critics decried that solution as both impractical and possibly unconstitutional, she changed tact, instead publicly pressuring Apple and Google to remove the platform from their app stores in order to curb its reach. Then, in late January, Germany’s federal police force (BKA) launched a new task force to monitor content on the app. "The corona pandemic in particular has contributed to people becoming radicalized on Telegram, threatening others or even publishing calls for murder," said BKA president Holger Münch in a press release. “We aim to work with Telegram, but we will take action if Telegram does not cooperate.”
There are different theories about why Germany’s authorities are determined to force the messaging app to clean up now, when the issues being discussed are not new. “The authorities didn’t take it seriously when they saw young people posting racist or antisemitic death threats on Telegram,” says Simone Rafael, head of digital at the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, an anti-racism group. “Now that local mayors and politicians are being attacked, they realize this problem might be bigger than they thought.” Others argue that the timing of the crackdown was triggered by a change in government, which is a coalition between The Greens, the Free Democrats, and the Social Democrats. “The primary driver of NetzDG and of this idea of greater monitoring and stronger, stricter enforcement has always been a Social Democrat priority,” says Tyson Barker, head of the Technology and Global Affairs program at the German Council of Foreign Relations. Barker points out it was a Social Democrat, Heiko Maas, who introduced the NetzDG, and now the Social Democrats have control of the interior ministry for the first time in 17 years.
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For others, Germany’s new harder tone only shows how much the government is struggling to assert its authority. “Going after the app stores is just a symptom of helplessness,” says HateAid’s Ballon. But Google and Apple have been able to influence Telegram before. German-born celebrity chef Attila Hildmann became radicalized during the pandemic, and his descent into conspiracy theories played out publicly on his Telegram group, which had up to 100,000 followers at its peak. Then, in June 2021, Hildmann posted on Telegram: “Apple app store and Google Play Store have censored my channel for all mobile phones!” His content inside Telegram was no longer visible on iPhones and Androids, although it could be accessed on the messaging platform’s desktop app.
At the time, Apple and Google denied that they had the technical ability to implement this change, prompting speculation that the big tech companies had instead lobbied Telegram behind the scenes to block this content for their users. Neither company replied to a request for comment on the issue. “Telegram can see what device you are using to connect to the app and then they limit access [to certain groups],” claims Miro Dittrich, founder and senior researcher at CeMAS, an organization that researches online extremism. “So it's not Apple or Google doing this. But they are definitely telling Telegram that it's against the rules of the App Store.” This has been done before, Dittrich adds. “Porn channels on Telegram are usually blocked on Apple devices because their app store prohibits content like this.” Despite the uncertainty about how exactly the Hildmann block was carried out, it worked. Hildmann tried to replace his main channel with several others that were not blocked by the app stores. “Now he has several channels still left, but they're extremely small compared to before,” says Dittrich. “So he really lost a lot of relevance through these actions.”
Relying on Google and Apple as proxies to moderate political content would mean national law only has impact if it coincides with an app store’s terms of service. But the way Telegram ignores German laws could have a ripple effect if other platforms decide to push back against stricter and stricter regulation. Germany introduced a new version of the NetzDG on February 1 that would require sites like Telegram, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to not only delete swastikas, calls for violence, or death threats but also send the personal information of the person behind the post, including their IP address, to Germany’s federal police force. The major social media platforms have expressed concerns about being forced to act like public prosecutors, and none of them has signed up to the new system, showing little concern for the consequences. Google, Facebook’s parent company Meta, Twitter, and TikTok have all filed lawsuits against the changes. As platforms wait to see who wins Germany’s Telegram standoff, the new government risks an example being set—that regulation is optional.
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