No registration address: German Federal Office fines Telegram

The messenger service popular on phones is to pay over €5 million in fines

Five years ago, the German Network Enforcement Act came into force. With it, the then coalition government of conservatives and social democrats wanted to combat hate crime, punishable false news and other criminalised content on social network platforms. Even then, it was disputed whether so-called instant messaging services were also covered. These include WhatsApp, which belongs to Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta Group, and Telegram, a platform founded by the Russian entrepreneurs Pavel and Nikolai Durov and registered in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. Both services allow passive information gathering in addition to communication between one or more partners. Groups or channels in which only certain people can post content contain up to 200,000 members in the case of Telegram.

Now, for the first time, the German Federal Office of Justice has imposed fines on Telegram for violations of the Network Enforcement Act. The company is said to have violated the obligation to maintain reporting channels that comply with the law. Neither Telegram users nor state authorities can therefore report incriminated content. According to its own information, the Federal Office of Justice has tried to serve hearing letters since April 2021 without success. However, the notification of an authorised representative with a summonable address in Germany was missing. Thus, no official documents can be served in a legally binding manner. Therefore, the makers are now to pay a total of €5.12 million. However, the penalty order is only legally binding if Telegram waives its right to appeal.

The communication with Telegram, though, was not quite as one-sided as the Federal Office of Justice portrays it. After a so-called public notification about the publication in the Federal Gazette, a law firm responded on behalf of Telegram. However, this statement had not been able to invalidate the accusations against the Dubai-based company. Previously, the German authorities also allegedly tried to exert pressure on Telegram within the framework of international legal assistance. The United Arab Emirates are said to have helped in this.

Telegram is one of the world’s most popular messenger services. The platform experienced its first big surge of new users after the takeover of WhatsApp by the then Facebook group in 2014, in which the programmers at the time received €16.8 billion for their sale. Altogether, there are said to be more than 700 million active Telegram users today.

Telegram’s communication is not fundamentally encrypted, but this can be set in the settings for individual chats. Therefore, the company can theoretically read the communication of its users in many cases and, for example, use automatic filters to check for criminal content. However, it is unclear to what extent this happens. Telegram also cooperates with European police authorities if they classify content as „terrorist“ or „violent extremist“. After deletion requests (so-called „referrals“), which in many cases are sent to Telegram via Europol, the content is also removed.

With new legislation, the European Union wants to oblige social networks to scan for potentially punishable child sexual abuse material. WhatsApp and Telegram would then also be obliged to filter photos and videos. Exempt from such a regulation would be, at most, messenger services that are basically encrypted and do not store any content on the operators‘ servers. The most popular alternative here is Signal, which can also be installed on computers.

Image: Adem AY on Unsplash.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.

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