Telegram: What the chat app is hiding from its users in their survey

On Tuesday, Telegram users suddenly received a message from its employees. “We, the Telegram team, ask you to give us your opinion,” it said. However, the makers of the messenger were not concerned with finding out what people think about their service and its functions. Rather, they let them vote on “how the data of German Telegram users can (or not) be shared with the German authorities, including the German police (BKA)”.

There are three possible answers, the digital referendum should run until Monday at noon German time. As of Friday morning, more than two million users have already cast their votes, at least that’s what a count below the vote shows.

The survey is surprising – and for several reasons. In which cases and to what extent Telegram has to pass on data to German authorities is of course neither in the decision-making power of the provider nor that of its users – it is stipulated by law.

Actually Telegram had declared to the federal government at the beginning of the year that it would help in the consistent prosecution of criminal offenses on the platform. It was a delicate signal of goodwill, after the platform had previously not even been accessible to the authorities. The service is now threatening to torpedo the burgeoning cooperation with its unusual survey campaign.

The Ministry of the Interior reacted in astonishment

They had “no prior knowledge” of the survey and took it ” with astonishment,” says the Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) when asked by SPIEGEL. Contrary to what Telegram suggests, the users cannot decide anything here: “The legal obligation to release data to the investigating authorities under certain conditions applies,” emphasizes the ministry. “Relying on the voting results of the survey cannot justify refusing to release the data.”

This February, there were direct talks between the federal government and those responsible for Telegram for the first time. The BMI State Secretary and Federal CIO Markus Richter as well as Telegram co-founder and frontman Pawel Durow took part in the video conference, and the Federal Ministry of Justice was also represented. It was then said that Telegram had signaled “the greatest possible willingness to cooperate” and that the service had named a high-ranking contact person for a direct line.

This was preceded by years of hide-and-seek by the Telegram makers. Not even two notices of fines with a threat of punishment of up to 55 million euros could be delivered to those responsible at the official office address in Dubai. In letters from April 2021, the Federal Office of Justice accused Telegram of violating the German Network Enforcement Act.

The proceedings continue, as confirmed by the Federal Ministry of Justice on request. The company has meanwhile inspected the files through a law firm and submitted statements. These would be “currently evaluated” in the Ministry of Justice.

Telegram has already delivered data to the BKA

The traffic light government has had a clear tone with Telegram since taking office aggravated. Both Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser (SPD) and Justice Minister Marco Buschmann (FDP) made it clear several times in interviews that they were no longer willing to be presented by those responsible for Telegram. As a last resort, Faeser even threatened to shut down the service if he continued to refuse to obey German laws – from which she distanced herself shortly afterwards.

Telegram had has already established itself as the preferred communication platform for conspiracy ideologues, lateral thinkers and right-wing extremists such as ex-vegan chef Attila Hildmann. There have also been and still are regular threats of violence against politicians, prominent virologists and scientists. Telegram also blocked content that was clearly criminal, if at all, then sporadically, arbitrarily and inconsistently. Many affected by such bans simply open new channels under different names.

Company boss Durow has always marketed his platform, which is technologically on a par with WhatsApp and other providers and superior in some respects, as a place with the greatest possible freedom of expression. “To date, we have shared zero bytes of user data with third parties, including all governments,” it said until the very end on their site. The service has not yet made it clear that the company has already released data on users to the BKA.

A SPIEGEL investigation made it known at the beginning of June that Telegram was a suspect in the areas child abuse and terrorism has already supplied the Federal Criminal Police Office with isolated data over the past few months. In Telegram’s transparency report on data disclosure 2021 to German authorities there is no information about this so far, actually they want to inform there every six months about corresponding releases.

Conspiracy theorists call for participation

2018 Durow had announced a revision of the privacy guidelines, according to which his service could henceforth publish IP addresses and telephone numbers on judicial orders. In the current survey, “Option 1” is offered to keep this rule unchanged. A second voting option provides that Telegram should deliver IP addresses and phone numbers of suspects of serious crimes without a prior court decision. That would be “completely new for Telegram and therefore requires a change in the data protection declaration for users from Germany”, it says. Option 3 is the most rigorous: “Under no circumstances” would Telegram therefore pass on user information, not even that of terrorist suspects, even if a German court order required it on Option 1 with 39 percent most votes. The strictest variant, not giving out any user information at all, which contradicts German law, is 37 percent. Spot checks by SPIEGEL in high-reach conspiracy ideology channels show that the survey was widely shared there shortly after it was distributed by the Telegram team, often with the hint to take part.

For the The federal government is extremely uncomfortable with the process, and threatens to be publicly snubbed if Telegram presents data according to which the majority of German users apparently decide against any or any other usual cooperation with German authorities. The voting mechanism is also non-transparent and susceptible to manipulation. It remains to be seen whether the result is really representative of the opinion of German users.

Since the talks began, the responsible ministries have followed a comparatively soft course towards Durow – for example with various deadline extensions. This doesn’t sit well with some of Telegram’s competitors — they may be paying close attention to how the government is dealing with Telegram’s peculiar grassroots democracy. After all, their services have had to comply with the provisions of the Network Enforcement Act for years and, in some cases, invest heavily in new employees who decide whether content violates the law or not.

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