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Germany considers ban on Telegram due to fears over conspiracy theorists

The German government is considering a ban on encrypted messaging app Telegram after it was repeatedly used as a channel for spreading anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and even death threats.

The Telegram app on a smartphone.
The Telegram app on a smartphone. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Fabian Sommer

The app has also played a key role in mobilising turnout at some of the most violent protests in opposition to the German government’s Covid-19 policies since the start of the pandemic.

With parliament due to begin debating compulsory vaccination on Wednesday, authorities fear that the controversial issue could risk firing up another wave of rage.

With this in mind, politicians have set their sights on tighter controls on Telegram.

Interior Minister Nancy Faeser will unveil plans by Easter to require the app to delete messages that contain death threats or hate speech and identify their authors.

If Telegram fails to comply, the government could even ban the service completely.

“We will ensure that those spreading hate are identified and held accountable,” Faeser told the Bundestag lower house of parliament in mid-January.

She also told Die Zeit newspaper that Telegram could be deactivated in Germany if it failed to comply with local laws and “all other options have failed”.

Telegram chat groups, which can include up to 200,000 members, have been used by some anti-vaccine protesters to share false information and to encourage violence against politicians.

In December, German police seized weapons during raids in the eastern city of Dresden after a Telegram group was used to share death threats against a regional leader.

The same month, Telegram was used to mobilise a group of coronavirus-sceptics to mass outside the house of Petra Koepping, the health minister of Saxony state, armed with flaming torches.

A message viewed by 25,000 people had called for people opposing Covid restrictions to share private addresses of German “local MPs, politicians and other personalities” who they believed were “seeking to destroy” them through pandemic curbs.

New avenues

At the height of a refugee crisis that erupted in 2015, online social networking tools Facebook and Twitter fell foul of the authorities as they were seized by the far-right to spread virulent anti-immigrant content.

In 2017, Germany passed a controversial law that requires the social network giants to remove illegal content and report it to the police.

Facebook said in September it had deleted accounts, pages and groups linked to the “Querdenker” (Lateral Thinkers), a movement that has emerged as the loudest voice against the German government’s coronavirus curbs.

But that pushed opposing voices to other platforms, with Telegram emerging as the app of choice.

“Since the big platforms like Facebook no longer allow racist, anti-Semitic hate and far-right content like Holocaust denial, people who want to spread this are looking for new avenues,” Simone Rafael, digital manager for the Amadeu Antonio anti-racism foundation, told AFP.

“Currently, the most popular one in Germany is Telegram,” Rafael said.

While Facebook has an interest in maintaining a presence in Germany and has gradually submitted to national legislation, this is not the case with
Telegram, the expert said.

“Telegram is not cooperating with the judicial or security authorities, even on indisputably punishable and reprehensible matters such as child pornography,” a behaviour that “deprives the state of any capacity for action”, Rafael said.

With Telegram not budging, German federal police are even planning to start flooding the company with requests for content deletion to push it into action, reported Die Welt daily.

 ‘Very bad signal’

One option for the government could be to require Google or Apple to remove Telegram from their app stores. However, this would not affect users who have already downloaded the app.

For Rafael, the only solution is to ban the app completely.

That would make Germany the first Western country to outlaw Telegram, created in 2013 by Russian brothers Nikolai and Pavel Durov, two opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin who sought to avoid surveillance by their country’s secret services.

The company is currently headquartered in Dubai, with its parent group in British Virgin Islands.

Telegram is already banned or heavily regulated in China, India and Russia.

But a move against the app could also spark further dissent in Germany.

Such a drastic step would “send a very bad signal”, according to digital journalist Markus Reuter.

“On the one hand we are celebrating Telegram’s lack of censorship and its importance for democratic movements in Belarus and Iran, and on the other, we are then disabling the service here” in Germany, he said.

By David COURBET

Member comments

  1. Well if China does it. It must be ok then. Should we open up some “re education ” camps too?
    Peoples Republik of Germany is really coming along at pace.
    I can feel the boots off freedom stamping on my face.

  2. How ironic, an app created to avoid totalitarian censorship in Russia ends up censored in the so-called free western state of Germany.

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TECH

EXPLAINED: How Germany is trying to tackle its slow internet problem

German internet is known for being blighted by dead zones and slow download speeds, but the government is hoping a new law will help bring the country into the 21st century. Here's how.

EXPLAINED: How Germany is trying to tackle its slow internet problem

What’s going on?

It’s no secret that internet in Germany isn’t quite up to scratch. In fact, it is often one of the first things foreigners notice after moving to the country.

Most people expect Europe’s largest economy to also be a digital powerhouse, but time and time again the country ends up near the bottom of the ranking list in terms of its internet download speeds and latency. 

In 2017, Germany came 25th in a ranking of average internet speeds and had slipped further down the list to 38th place by 2021. Though speeds have been gradually improving over the past few years, the latest survey put Germany behind at least 18 other European countries in terms of its internet speed, including Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Hungary, France and Romania. 

To try and tackle the problem, the traffic light coalition of the Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Free Democrats (FDP) have drafted a bill that would give everyone in the country the right to fast broadband. 

It was agreed on by the cabinet on Wednesday and will be put to parliament over the coming weeks or months. 

READ ALSO: ‘We’re running late on this’: Deutsche Bahn promises better Wifi on German trains by 2026

OK. How fast is fast? 

Not insanely fast, unfortunately.

According to the draft, fixed-network internet connections everywhere in Germany must in future provide at least 10 megabits per second (Mbit/s) for downloads and 1.7 megabits per second for uploads to their customers. 

This seems particularly low in light of the fact that Germany was recorded as having average download speeds of around 41 Mbit/s back in 2020. Though this looked bad in comparison to somewhere like the Netherlands, where 70 Mbit/s was the average speed, it does make the 10 Mbit/s target seem a bit under-ambitious.

It’s worth remembering though that this an absolute minimum standard – so most houses should expect something far above the 10 Mbit/s. And this kind of speed is generally good enough for relatively fast HD streaming and excellent internet browsing. 

In addition to the minimum download and upload speeds, the government says the latency (reaction time) should also be no more than 150 milliseconds.

Why are they aiming so low? 

According to Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP), the minimum requirements are intended to ensure “the digital participation” of all those “who have so far been cut off from coverage”.

In other words, the government is more concerned with bringing basic broadband to people in more remote areas than making Wifi speeds insanely fast for everyone else. 

Wissing also mentioned that the minimum standards would be redefined year by year. This will take into account the development of internet use in Germany, which changes over the years due to network expansion and new tariffs, he said.

READ ALSO: More than half of Germans regularly experience bad mobile coverage

What are people saying?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the opposition conservatives aren’t particularly impressed with the draft. 

Describing the targets as “unambitious”, digital policy spokesman Reinhard Brandl (CDU) said people’s modern internet usage habits were already being ignored.

“We have considerable doubts as to whether a 10-megabit download rate and a 1.7-megabit upload rate per connection are sufficient as a basic service for a family with children,” Brandl said. 

Rheinhard Brandl (CDU)

Reinhard Brandl (CDU) speaks in the Bundestag. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christophe Gateau

When will the changes come into force?

Originally, the ordinance was due to come into effect on June 1st – but the bill still needs to get the approval from the Bundestag and Bundesrat before it can become law. 

For that reason, the Transport Ministry is now expecting to miss the June deadline and could introduce the rules later in summer or autumn instead. 

What will it mean when the law changes?

For the first time, it will mean that people in Germany have a legal right to certain broadband speeds. This gives them grounds for complaining to network providers if they aren’t getting the minimum speed. 

It could also give the Federal Network Agency a push to speed up the roll-out of infrastructure that can improve broadband speeds. In some cases, it could arrange for new cables to be laid. 

READ ALSO: German mobile networks improve coverage in signal ‘dead zones’

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