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Telegram agreed to delete user accounts in Brazil after the Supreme Court threatened it with a ban

March 21, 2022, 9:45 AM UTC

Telegram—the messaging app that prides itself on user privacy—just showed there are times when it will bow to official pressure to police content, after the popular messaging app agreed to delete certain user accounts and messages to avoid being banned by the Brazilian courts.

Brazil’s courts have complained for months that the messaging app had routinely ignored requests to take down content deemed misinformation, particularly in regard to posts from supporters of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro—whose Telegram channel has over a million subscribers—as the country prepares for its presidential election in October.

Brazil bans Telegram

On Friday, Brazilian Supreme Court Judge Alexandre de Moraes ordered internet providers to block access to the app’s site and instructed Google and Apple to remove Telegram from their app stores.

“The Telegram platform, at every possible opportunity, failed to heed judicial orders in a total disregard for the Brazilian judiciary,” de Moraes wrote in his ruling. 

Telegram then raced to remove posts from President Bolsonaro that shared classified information and deleted the accounts of a Bolsonaro supporter accused of sharing disinformation. Telegram founder Pavel Durov said in a statement that the company had missed previous emails the Supreme Court sent, ordering the messaging service to take down certain accounts.

Telegram “has always been willing to collaborate with the authorities,” the company’s lawyer Alan Campos Elias Thomaz said on Sunday. The Brazilian Supreme Court rescinded its ban after Telegram complied with its orders.

Telegram has long prided itself on resisting calls from governments to restrict speech and gain access to user data. Only last week, a Telegram spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal the app has a consistent history of ‘zero compromise’ when facing bans in countries like Iran, China, or Russia.”

Yet Telegram’s decision in Brazil shows—again—that there are some circumstances where it will comply with pressure from government bodies. That capitulation could raise more concerns over the app’s security, as it continues to serve as a popular communication tool for both sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Telegram, from Russia to Ukraine

Telegram is one of the few social media apps still available in Russia, after the country closed access to platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter after the platforms blocked access to Russian state-media channels in the European Union.

Telegram also blocked European users from accessing Russian state media, yet escaped a Russian ban, perhaps because the platform is too useful for the Kremlin to give up. Telegram gives Russia an avenue to share its story about the country’s invasion of Ukraine. The Telegram channel of state-owned news agency RIA Novosti has nearly quadrupled since the invasion of Ukraine began.

Ukrainians have also flocked to Telegram amid Russia’s invasion. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy communicates to supporters through a Telegram channel, and live war updates are shared with Ukrainians in the country and overseas from journalists on the ground.

However, several privacy experts have noted that Telegram is less secure than other encrypted apps because messages are not encrypted by default, which means some messages and other data can be seen by Telegram.

“There is a significant risk of insider threat or hacking of Telegram systems that could expose all of these chats to the Russian government,” said the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Eva Galperin to National Public Radio. Independent Russian media and anti-war protesters in Russia both use Telegram and could be at risk of reprisal if Telegram is unable to keep that data out of Moscow’s hands.

Telegram says it has “disclosed 0 bytes of user data to third parties, including governments,” and Durov pledged on March 8 that he would protect user data “at any cost” in a pledge to defend the data of Ukrainians from the Russian government.

Telegram’s decision to comply in Brazil didn’t involve sharing user data but is a reminder that the company can access and police the content of some messages sent through its platform.

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