Pro-privacy secure messaging app Telegram is seeing some impressive usage growth this year. Here at TechCrunch Disrupt SF founder Pavel Durov revealed on stage the platform is now seeing 12 billion messages sent daily — up from two billion back in May, and 1 billion in February.
Its monthly active users figure remains around 60 million, as it was in May, so the growth here is more about increased engagement with the service by the existing group of users. Durov confirmed this, saying the team is seeing users who had originally installed the app as a backup messaging option switching to it as their main messaging app.
“Interesting thing that we noticed is that people who installed Telegram — massive numbers last year, this year — and installed it just as a back-up application started to use Telegram as their primary messaging application. And that’s why we see this huge increase in user activity,” he told TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher.
Through over two year of our existence we haven’t disclosed a single byte of data to third parties — even governments. And it was not easy.
“That’s an indicator that people really love Telegram and switch more and more of their activities there. And more often than not they start their day from their messaging app… I think that we should be really happy about this. Messaging is probably the biggest thing going on in social media this decade.”
And while 60M MAUs is far from a WhatsApp- or WeChat-scale messaging platform, Durov made the point that Telegram is only two years old — whereas WhatsApp, for instance, is around six years old.
Durov kicked off his on-stage turn by reciting a shopping list of what he sees as limitations with the larger U.S. messaging rival — arguing that encryption and privacy are just “one of the things that makes Telegram different”.
“If you have WhatsApp on your phone and your battery’s low and your phone goes dead, suddenly you can’t get access to your messages. It’s over. It’s not cross device. It doesn’t have cross-device sync. You can’t send documents or big media. There are lots of limitations in the group chats, in your communication. It’s not private. So I’m not sure I was a big fan of WhatsApp about three years ago, and I’m not sure I am now,” he said.
But what’s the business proposition for being so pro-privacy, wondered Butcher? Durov recounted a story of a friend back in Russia whose WhatsApp messages were intercepted and decrypted by the police. “She told me they tried to use it to blackmail her. So privacy is not something that is relevant only to business users but businesses are most affected because they could be blackmailed,” he said. “Rich people could be blackmailed, and their information is more available and it could be compromised.”
The flip side of properly implemented privacy (aka secure end-to-end encryption) is of course that communications can’t be accessed by third parties — even where there may be a case to do so. And that’s something government intelligence agencies in countries such as the U.K. and the U.S. are directing political pressure at, arguing that no comms method should be unaccessible to security services ‘in extremis’.
Butcher pressed Durov on this point, referencing the use of Telegram by extremists in the self-styled Islamic State. Durov confirmed ISIS is using Telegram. “Does that concern you?” asked Butcher. “That’s a good question,” he responded. “Do you sleep well at night knowing that terrorists use your platform?” pressed Butcher, leading to a pause as Durov considered his reply.
“That’s a very good question but I think that privacy, ultimately, and our right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism,” he responded.
Our right for privacy is more important than our fear of bad things happening, like terrorism.
“Yes there is a war going on in the Middle East. It’s a series of tragic events but ultimately the ISIS will always find a way to communicate within themselves. And if any means of communication turns out to be not secure for them, then they switch to another one. So I don’t think we’re actually taking part in this activities. I don’t think we should feel guilty about this. I still think we’re doing the right thing — protecting our users privacy.”
Switching gears, Butcher also asked Durov whether there was any contradiction in Telegram kicking porn bots off its platform in certain markets such as Iran — given his otherwise libertarian and free speech views. Durov said the company does not engage in secret negotiations with governments, adding that removing porn bots is merely a business decision in certain markets.
“We’re not big fans of porn. We don’t want Telegram to be perceived as a source of porn. And so we do block this kind of stuff,” he said. “We do it purely for business reason decisions. In some markets we don’t want to be perceived as something that has to do with porn. This is the same reasoning behind Apple’s decision to block porn content on the App Store. Or Instagram’s decision to block porn, or Facebook, or YouTube… you could go on. We think this is the right thing to do.”
“But if we speak about privacy and freedom of speech we have very adamant principles about it. Through over two year of our existence we haven’t disclosed a single byte of data to third parties — even governments,” he added. “And it was not easy.”
Other tidbits from the interview included Durov saying Telegram is thinking about launching a payment API for third party developers using its bot platform to accept payments from users. He described the bot platform as akin to an app store model for the messaging app, and claimed that one such three-month old Telegram bot-maker has already fielded an eight-digit acquisition attempt.
“We launched the bot platform… during this year,” he noted. “So any third party developer using very simple APIs can create a bot and through the user that you can communicate with on Telegram. But at the other end of the communication there’s a machine that is dealing with all the messages on that side and actually a lot of services have appeared using that paradigm of communication. Dating, education, productivity, all that sort of stuff.”
Butcher also asked whether Telegram might not launch some more fully fledged services — a la Asian messaging platforms such as Line and WeChat, whose messaging apps are now far richer platforms pushing all sorts of services at the core users than just comms.
“In order to go this Eastern model you really have to have high penetration into the market. You have to be socially relevant for everybody,” said Durov. “And it’s not always the case with apps like Telegram or Kik… Because although we’re pretty big in some of the markets — I think we’re number one in a couple of them — we don’t have the dominance that WeChat has in China or Line in Japan or Kakao in Korea.
“And so yes we will experiment with the payment system with bots and third party applications built on top of Telegram but we don’t see ourselves necessarily as going that way in the near future.”