Your data is important. It belongs to you and you alone, and its privacy must be respected. This is the stance taken by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the new data protection law of the EU. In a climate where topics of data and personal rights have become increasingly important, Telegram has led the way in providing an instant messaging service that respects our rights to privacy. In this essay, I discuss and analyse the origins of Telegram as well as its transformative effects as a champion of digital privacy in our networked and data-saturated world.
What is Telegram?
Telegram is a cloud-based instant messaging service that prides itself on its speed and security. Like most instant messaging services that have emerged over the last decade, Telegram allows its users to communicate in real-time through various media such as text, images, audio, video, etc. using internet-enabled devices (Piwek & Joinson, 2016). Based on the cloud, Telegram is able to store chat data on its servers so that users are able to use the service across different devices and locations as long as they have an internet connection.
With over 200 million monthly users, Telegram is one of the most popular among its contemporaries. The app was founded in 2013 by the enterprising Russian born brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, who have also been credited as the creators of Russia’s largest social network Vkontakte (VK) (Reuters, 2013). Initially built as a testing platform for Nikolai Durov’s data transfer protocol MTProto, Telegram quickly grew into its current function as an instant messaging app. The development of Telegram was funded by Digital Fortress, a US-based company that was owned by Pavel (ibid.).
Despite its history as an app founded by Russians, Telegram has rejected any associations with Russia (Karasz, 2018). In 2011, amid protests against the highly contentious results of the Russian legislative elections, VK was ordered by the FSB (Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation) to provide sensitive user information and to censor content relating to the protests and anti-Putin sentiments (Maréchal, 2018). Pavel Durov, the CEO of VK, refused to comply, and as a result, was forced out of the company by Kremlin-linked investors (ibid.). Soon after, the Durov brothers left Russia in self-imposed exile, believing the political climate of Russia to be unconducive for the development of internet businesses (Reuters, 2014).
In a post on the Telegram website celebrating its milestone of having reached 200 million active monthly users, Pavel Durov proclaimed that Telegram believes in a guiding philosophy where people are “inherently intelligent and benevolent beings” that should be trusted with the freedom to share ideas and communicate privately.
Describing himself as a Libertarian, Pavel Durov’s personal beliefs align with the ideals of Cyber-Libertarianism (Taylor, 2013). According to Thierer and Szoka (2009), Cyber-Libertarianism is the belief that individuals should have the right and freedom to pursue their own interests online without any form of state intervention. As the brainchild of Durov, Telegram appears to be built around these ideals of freedom and privacy. On its website, Telegram states that it is a service that is “free forever”, positioning itself as an instant messaging app that is dedicated to providing the masses with a means of secure and private communication.
Telegram’s full commitment to the idea of internet freedom and trust in its users is further reflected in its decision to allow third-party developers to create “bots” using its API. Bots are essentially programs embedded into Telegram chats that provide users with an array of time-saving or novelty functions (Newman, 2019). With Telegram’s API, people have been able to get creative and engineer bots that range from customisable keyboards to ones that provide accurate, live information on bus timings or even accept payments. In many ways, Telegram presents itself as a messaging app that belongs to the people.
Since its release to the public, Telegram has always marketed itself as a leader for privacy in the instant messaging industry. It was one of the first instant messaging apps to provide end-to-end encryption (a security measure that prevents an unintended sender or receiver from reading a message or a file sent between two people even if the message has been intercepted) using the MTProto protocol developed by Nikolai Durov (Greenberg, 2014).
However, Telegram’s claims of a high standard of security have also been a cause for scrutiny by various experts in the field of cryptography and information security, who claim that Nikolai Durov’s MTProto protocol is opaque and vulnerable to exploitations by the technologically savvy (Saribekyan & Margvelashvili, 2017).
Telegram’s biggest competitors are other popular internet-based instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, as well as other messaging apps like Signal and Tox that have a value proposition that focuses on the security aspect of instant messaging communication. What sets Telegram apart is perhaps its rich set of features, some of which identify it as more of social networking tool than an instant messaging application. Apart from secret chats, self-destruct timers and bots, Telegram gives users the ability to create and join groups that can have up to 200,000 members, as well as channels that can reach an unlimited number of audiences while still maintain user anonymity (Telegram, 2019).
In 2018, Telegram broadened its services beyond that of just instant messaging, with a venture into blockchain and cryptocurrency (De, 2018). Raising over $1.7 billion in its Initial Coin Offering (ICO) with a virtual currency dubbed Grams, the money was meant to fund an ambitious new project called the Telegram Open Network (TON), which will serve as a decentralised network that allow for more secure file transfers and payments.
The diagram below highlights the key players in the Telegram ecology:
Telegram – Protector of Privacy…?
With its secret chats and self-destructing messages, Telegram is able to protect its users’ conversations to a high degree of security. The ability to communicate in large groups and broadcast messages in channels also contributes to the fostering of communities and interest groups, perhaps an intended outcome based on Durov’s Cyber-Libertarian beliefs. Supposedly, these features would give users the ability to communicate without fear of being spied on by authorities that would seek to undermine those freedoms. However, people have found ways to use Telegram in ways that are less noble than what Durov has intended.
As with most internet services, Telegram’s platform is not unsusceptible to criminal activity. In fact, it is likely that the app’s stance on privacy is what drives criminals to its services; unfortunately, it is the lawbreakers that have the most to hide. Just a week ago, Channel News Asia (CNA) published an article detailing the existence 13 illicit Telegram chat groups based in Singapore that contained leaked sex tapes and child pornography (CNA, 2019). According to the article, 6 out of these 13 groups had more than 10,000 members. The victims of these chat groups were predominantly women, many of whom also had their personal information revealed and circulated (ibid.). Ironically, it is Telegram’s own platform that has been used to infringe on the privacy and rights of others.
Telegram has also been used as a political tool. In Hong Kong, the app was used by thousands of protesters against the extradition bill with China (Soo, 2019). Protesters used Telegram to coordinate protests, sharing information about locations and supplies in groups that contained tens of thousands of members (ibid.). Similarly, anti-government protestors in Russia have also used Telegram’s channels and bots to organise their forces as well as provide food, legal and financial aid (VOA, 2019). These channels were powerful tools for activists to communicate effectively while remaining anonymous to protect their identity from the authorities.
Not surprisingly, Telegram has also been adopted by extremist groups like ISIS and white supremacists to incite terrorism and spread their ideologies (Gilmour, 2019). Over the years, with major social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram clamping down on these extremist groups and censoring their content, many of them have flocked to Telegram, where they are able to continue their activities behind the encryption technology of the app. Laura Loomer, a popular social media personality known for her extreme right-wing ideologies and conspiracy theories, announced to her Facebook followers to join her on Telegram, as she received news of her impending ban from Facebook for violation of its rules (Glaser, 2019). Today, she posts content multiple times daily to over 11,000 followers on the app.
Unlike these social media giants who have often considered themselves as just “tools” and preferring to remain politically neutral, Telegram was built with the purpose of protecting free speech and privacy (Weigel, 2018). Consequently, its defiant pledge to that purpose is why Telegram has not taken action on private chats. While Telegram announced a ban of 78 ISIS-related channels across 12 languages within a week after the Paris attacks in November 2015, Pavel Durov also mentioned that they were only banned because they were public-facing; private chats are still an untouchable territory.
The Future of Communication
With its focus on privacy and the protection of freedoms of speech, Telegram has had a transformative impact on the technologies we use to communicate today. Its success and popularity in our modern society have signalled a shift in our perceived value of privacy. While the use of encryption is not new, the fact that Telegram implemented it for everyday communications has set a precedent for future communicative technologies to do the same. More importantly, the platform has also had a transformative impact on how we form communities and communicate online, as Telegram continues to endeavour towards an internet free from government interventions.
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