Measures against hate speech: simply switch off Telegram?

fact finder

Status: 01/14/2022 5:17 p.m

Federal Interior Minister Faeser has threatened to shut down the Telegram service if other measures do not work. But is that even possible? Experts are skeptical.

By Florian Flade, WDR, and Patrick Gensing,

Federal Interior Minister Nancy Faeser wants to present an action plan against right-wing extremism by Easter. With regard to hate content and threats that are being spread via the chat provider Telegram, the SPD politician said: “We will ensure that hate speech is identified and held accountable.”

Previously, the minister had not ruled out in the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” that Telegram could be switched off in Germany if the messenger service did not comply with local laws. First, however, an attempt must be made to get the provider to comply with the law using other means.

According to the Federal Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Office of Justice, Telegram is a social network that is subject to the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG). This means that the operators are obliged to take action against criminal content. According to the Ministry of the Interior, this is not the case. For this reason, fine proceedings have already been initiated, but the company, which is based in Dubai, has not yet been able to receive such letters.

“wrong term”

But would it even be possible to switch off Telegram, as suggested by the Federal Minister of the Interior? ARD digital expert Dennis Horn thinks the term “switch off” is wrong. If at all, it is possible to restrict access to Telegram. Google and Apple could remove the app from their app portals in Germany, for example. The messenger could then no longer be downloaded again – but already installed Telegram apps could continue to be used.

A classic network blocking is also conceivable – as with illegal porn portals, for example. Providers could be instructed to block the service in Germany. The Federal Office of Justice, which could issue a corresponding order, would be responsible for this. But this could be circumvented, explains Horn, through so-called VPN services or “Tor” platforms, through which a German IP address can be disguised. Switching off is therefore not possible, but access could be made more difficult, says the digital expert. For many people it is certainly too cumbersome to circumvent such blocks.

In addition, there would be the legal question, because does Telegram really mainly contain hate content? “I doubt it,” says Horn. There are many serious users there. The SPD is also active there itself. In addition, the history of Telegram, which was developed by the Russian Pavel Durow to enable the opposition to network there, must be taken into account.

Block “Half Internet”?

The specialist journalist Markus Reuter also refers to Russia in this context. When attempts were made there to block the messenger, Telegram “reacted very creatively and outsourced its services to Amazon servers. Anyone who blocks them blocks half the Internet,” according to the editor of The federal government would then only have the option of exerting political pressure on Amazon so that the group ended its private-sector connection with Telegram. The situation is very similar for Apple and Google.

Reuter sees the announcement primarily as a means of exerting pressure. But the federal government is in a difficult position: “You can’t say that you can’t do anything if providers simply leave illegal content standing. On the other hand, the blocking of Telegram would affect millions of people who use the messenger quite legally and lawfully in a football club or with friends.”

In addition, “such measures send a very problematic signal: because on the one hand we celebrate the uncensorability of Telegram and the importance of the app for democracy movements in Belarus and Iran – and on the other hand we then switch off this service here. ”

Reuter believes that criminal content must first be prosecuted where this is already possible. “If the police only become aware of death threats through media research, then the impression is created that you can do illegal things on Telegram without consequences because the police don’t even notice.”

Removed jihadist propaganda material

There had certainly been exchanges between the security authorities in recent years. In 2019, for example, Europol published several press releases that referred to cooperation in the fight against Islamist terror. At that time, large amounts of jihadist propaganda material were removed from Telegram in cooperation with Europol.

“We support freedom of expression and peaceful protest, but terrorism and violent propaganda have no place at Telegram. We are constantly improving our internal procedures and moderation tools to ensure our platform remains free from abuse,” a Telegram representative was quoted as saying at the time.

For German security authorities, however, the company is currently more of a mystery. There is no fixed contact person at Telegram for the police or judiciary. According to the security authorities, there is usually no response to inquiries. According to which criteria certain content would be deleted is not really understandable.

“When calls to criminal offenses are made via Telegram, more and more content is reported and criminal charges are filed. Unfortunately, Telegram’s reports are not implemented, although this is required by law,” said a spokeswoman for the Federal Ministry of the Interior. One is “currently intensively examining all legal options for taking action against the dissemination of criminal content and hatred and hate speech via Telegram”. Switching off the platform in German networks, the ministry emphasizes, is the “ultima ratio”.

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