After Paris Attacks, Telegram Purges ISIS Public Content

In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, and amid ongoing operations to catch the perpetrators, with fears of further attacks swirling — secure messaging app Telegram has shuttered a swathe of public channels that it says were being used to broadcast what it dubbed “ISIS-related” content.

In an update posted on its public channel yesterday, Telegram News, the company writes that it was “disturbed to learn that Telegram’s public channels were being used by ISIS to spread their propaganda” — something it says it learned after receiving reports sent to it by users at the email address — and adding that it has blocked 78 ISIS-related channels operating in 12 different languages “this week alone”.

It added that it would be introducing an easier way for users to report “objectionable public content” in an upcoming app update this week.

The messaging app introduced the public broadcast channels back in September, as a replacement for a prior Broadcast lists feature, describing them as “a new tool for broadcasting your messages to large audiences”, and noting: “They can have an unlimited number of members, they can be public with a permanent URL and each post in a channel has its own view counter.”

Despite the startup expressing apparent surprise at ISIS’ adoption of its public channels, also in September Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov confirmed in an on stage interview with TechCrunch that ISIS extremists were using the messaging app to communicate. But he said the company remained committed to protecting users’ privacy — arguing that terrorist groups will always find secure channels to communicate.

“I don’t think we should feel guilty about this. I still think we’re doing the right thing — protecting our users privacy,” he said at the time.

As well as privacy, Durov has also been a consistent supporter of free speech — stating these are the twin principles guiding the projects he and his team of engineers develop. It’s not clear whether he has changed his position on either principle now, in the wake of the Paris attacks, albeit that seems highly unlikely for such a consistently principled individual. At the time of writing Durov had not responded to a request for comment on Telegram’s decision to purge public ISIS channels.

However it’s worth noting that public broadcast channels are a somewhat different communications beast to private communications — given their greater potential reach (hence the choice of the word “propaganda” in the Telegram update, and specific reference to “objectionable public content” [emphasis mine]).

And of course publicly expressed terrorist sentiments are rather harder to accommodate on free speech grounds vs unseen private messages whose specific content remains unknown — even if it is suspected and reviled by default.

Update: Durov has now responded to confirm he remains committed to messaging privacy, telling TechCrunch: “We launched public channels in Telegram only a few weeks ago and they have nothing to do with private chats and privacy. In fact, they are something opposite: these are publicly available broadcasts, more like RSS. Since channels represent a completely different means of communication, they require a completely different approach. As for private chats, they were and remain sacred to us. There will be no shift in attitude there.”

The wider political pressure Telegram is doubtless hoping to defuse by purging ISIS content from the public face of its messaging platform is from the kneejerk response of governments and security agencies once again briefing against strong encryption in the wake of the latest terrorist attack — in a bid to scapegoat technology and deflect attention away from their own policy failures.

In additional statements relating to the clean up of ISIS public channels, Telegram clarified its free speech position on public content as ‘anti-terrorist’, but not anti-alternative opinion — provided, of course, the latter is expressed peacefully.

“While we do block terrorist (eg ISIS-related) bots and channels, we will not block anybody who peacefully expresses alternative opinions,” it said.

“For example, if criticizing the government is illegal in a country, Telegram won’t be part of such politically-motivated censorship. This goes against our founders’ principles,” it added.

Of course it’s a fine line Telegram is treading here. But that’s always the case when principles collide with messy, real-world events.

Telegram has seen some impressive engagement growth this year, with the volume of messages sent daily on the platform rising from around 1 billion this February to 12 billion by September, although its monthly active users remained at around the 60 million mark between May and September.