Why the state is powerless against Telegram
There is no shortage of goodwill in politics: the new German government is in complete agreement that the messenger service Telegram must be better regulated. Every day, a number of calls for violence to resist Corona measures are published there, and the trade in fake vaccination certificates is flourishing. Federal Minister of Justice Marco Buschmann (FDP) already affirmed it over the weekend, and now the new Federal Minister of the Interior Nancy Faeser (SPD) has also left no doubt: "We must take more decisive action against incitement, violence and hatred on the Internet."
But the more precisely one asks about possible measures, the clearer it becomes: The Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) may be one of the strictest regulations against hate messages on the Internet, but the authorities in this country are currently largely powerless against a service like Telegram. This starts with the dispute as to whether Telegram can be covered by the regulations at all - after all, the law is about regulating social networks like Facebook, YouTube and TikTok, where lies, hatred and incitement to hatred can spread at lightning speed under the eyes of the world's public.
For a long time, the Federal Office of Justice took the view that the company, as a chat platform, was essentially intended for direct exchange and, what's more, was not profit-oriented. Therefore, the NetzDG was not relevant at all. But on Monday, a spokeswoman for the Federal Ministry of Justice clarified: Telegram fulfills different functions. In addition to the messenger service, it also offers public channels and chat groups, which sometimes consist of hundreds of thousands of participants.
However, the company's headquarters in Dubai, which allows the company's founders to hide behind organized irresponsibility, creates much greater difficulties. If one wants to force Telegram to delete individual content or entire channels under the NetzDG, it already fails because the necessary hearing letters cannot even be delivered. The procedure is cumbersome: first of all, a request for legal assistance must be submitted to the United Arab Emirates. This was done in May 2021, reports the spokeswoman for the Federal Minister of Justice. When asked whether these letters have actually been served, she can only shrug her shoulders.
Telegram was founded in 2013 by Pavel Durov together with his brother Nikolai. The two had previously become rich with the social network VKontakte, which is very popular in Russia. Durow is considered a kind of Russian Mark Zuckerberg and is known for his libertarian stance. He financed the service himself for a long time. In the meantime, however, the company is trying to earn money with advertisements. According to its own information, more than 500 million people use the service.
Telegram makes it clear on its website that it is very reluctant to delete content. It says it has to follow up on "legitimate requests" for public content in order to be able to create a "secure, global means of communication." But that doesn't mean bowing to local restrictions on free speech, he said. "For example, if criticism of the government is banned in a country, Telegram is in no way a part of such politically motivated censorship," the service affirms. It goes against the founders' principles, it says. You block terrorist content, Telegram writes, but do not prevent users from "peacefully expressing alternative opinions." When asked, the Federal Criminal Police Office also confirmed that prosecuting crimes on platforms like Telegram is "fundamentally difficult." For the most part, Telegram does not comply with "suggestions" to delete right-wing extremist content.
However, this does not mean that nothing is happening - and this is also quite surprising: The channels of vegan chef Attila Hildmann, who has become a leading figure in the "Querdenker" movement and is under investigation for incitement of the people, have, for example, been blocked in the Telegram app for several months. It is suspected that the operators of the two major app stores Google and Apple have enforced this. There is no confirmation of this, only a note: Hildmann's channels can still be accessed via the desktop version.
In principle, Telegram cannot be reached for inquiries. There is no imprint on the website. Journalists should contact a chatbot on Telegram. This assures that the request has been forwarded to the press team. There is no further feedback. The Prime Minister of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, who initiated the current debate, does not want to accept this collective helplessness: "It can no longer be acceptable that the operators of Telegram from Dubai stand idly by while death threats are spread on their network," he told the F.A.Z. "If they want to offer their services on the German market, they must take action against this agitation. Otherwise, the European Union, the German government, Apple and Android manufacturer Alphabet must intervene."
Photo by Adem Ay