Brazil bans Telegram over unresponsiveness around tackling disinformation

Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court (STF) has ordered the suspension of Telegram in Brazil on the basis that the company has not cooperated with the country’s judiciary and law enforcement authorities.

As part of the ruling issued today (18), Apple and Google have been told to create “technological obstacles capable of making the use of the Telegram application unfeasible by users of the IOS (Apple) and Android (Google) system”, while also removing the app from the Apple Store and Google Play.

Internet providers, which are being required to block Telegram’s IP addresses, have also been notified of the decision by the Brazilian telecommunications agency, Anatel. Companies must comply with the order and inform the STF about the mechanisms introduced to make use of Telegram unfeasible in Brazil within 24 hours, and the app should be suspended completely by March 22.

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The order issued by STF minister Alexandre de Moraes noted that “the disregard for Brazilian legislation and the repeated failure to comply with numerous judicial decisions by Telegram is a circumstance completely incompatible with the current constitutional order, in addition to expressly contradicting a legal provision” the decision says, adding that Telegram, failed to comply with court orders multiple times, in a display of “total contempt” for the Brazilian justice.

According to the decision, anyone using workarounds to continue to access Telegram in Brazil – such as using VPNs – will be liable to pay a daily fine of 100,000 Brazilian reais ($19,905). Companies failing to comply with the STF order will be fined in 500,000 Brazilian reais ($99,527) daily.

The STF ruling responds to a request from the Federal Police, which states the Brazilian authorities have been blatantly ignored by the company that owns the messaging app and only complied partly with previous orders, such as providing full details of profiles investigated for spreading false information.

The suspension and the payment of a daily fine will be enforced until Telegram complies with a series of requests relating to ongoing investigations into disinformation campaigns led by supporters of president Jair Bolsonaro.

“The disregard for justice and the total lack of cooperation between the Telegram platform and the judiciary bodies is a fact that disrespects the sovereignty of several countries,” the Federal Police said, adding this is “not a circumstance that occurs exclusively in Brazil” and that such behavior “allowed the platform to be repeatedly used for numerous criminal offences.”

Telegram is one of the main concerns of Brazil’s electoral authorities as to the country’s general elections approach. Used widely by Bolsonaro and his supporter base after WhatsApp capped message forwarding, the tool’s lack of moderation and limits in terms of user numbers in groups is seen as mechanisms to facilitate the dissemination of false information. According to a survey carried out by Mobile Time & Opinion Box, Telegram is present in 60% of smartphones in Brazil.

The Superior Electoral Court had also been trying to contact the company behind the messaging app to discuss ways in which these risks could be mitigated, to no avail. Other companies operating social media platforms, such as Meta and Twitter, have committed to working with the authorities on that front.

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After the STF decision was issued, Telegram’s founder and CEO, Pavel Durov, said in his own Telegram channel that a technical issue had prevented the company from receiving emails from the Brazilian Court, as emails had been directed to an address used for general purposes.

He also noted that Telegram complied with a previous takedown request from the Brazilian authorities in February and had asked that future requests were sent to a dedicated email address. “Unfortunately, our response must have been lost because the Court used the old general-purpose email address in further attempts to reach us”, Durov said. As a result, we missed its decision in early March that contained a follow-up takedown request. Luckily, we have now found and processed it, delivering another report to the Court today.

Still, Durov apologized for his company’s negligence to respond, adding that his firm “definitely could have done a better job” in terms of cooperation. He asked the Brazilian authorities to delay the ruling for an extra few days while the firm remedies the situation by appointing a legal representative in Brazil and creating a framework to respond fast to similarly pressing matters in the future.

“The last 3 weeks have been unprecedented for the world and for Telegram. Our content moderation team was flooded with requests from multiple parties”, Durov pointed out. “However, I am certain that once a reliable channel of communication is established, we’ll be able to efficiently process takedown requests for public channels that are illegal in Brazil.”

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