A Problem with the Telegram Messaging App?

telegram-07-700x470One of my top recommendations for a messaging app–not just with the Dark Android Project, but also on my Sovryn Tech podcast, and it even gets top marks on the EFF’s “Secure Messaging Score Card”–is the cross-platform, anarchist-run and funded app: Telegram.

Telegram is a feature-rich, open-source app that allows for private messaging, group messaging, client-side encryption (though many have concerns over that encryption, but that is not what I’m concentrating on here), server-side encryption, sharing channels, bots, stickers, file transfers, picture sharing…and unlike many other messaging apps, this is as cross-platform as you can get, from a web interface to software made for OSX and Windows, and the superior apps on iOS and Android (and they even make the app available in the F-Droid repository, which is a big deal, in my opinion).

It’s important to hit one more point home: Telegram was created, and is entirely funded (no ads), by the well-known multi-millionaire Russian anarchist–“The Man in Triple-Black of the East”–Pavel Durov, the creator of the popular VK social media site. And I appreciate the app for this reason alone: it’s run by an anarchist. And personally, I follow Durov’s work pretty closely, and rather like the guy.

Recently he made a claim that the Telegram app was no longer functioning in Iran. Like any good anarchist, he immediately assumed foul play by the Iranian government, considering that his app is meant to thwart governments (I would have thought the same if I were in his triple-black shoes).

Just yesterday, he released an announcement on the matter:

From Pavel Durov’s Telegram Channel:

Finally some good news for our Iranian users. A couple of weeks ago Telegram stopped working in Iran, so I assumed we had been blocked there. However, service has since returned to normal, and the Iranian Ministry of Information and Communication declared they were not going to block Telegram.

The interruption of service, they say, was due to the disruption of cables connecting Iran with the rest of the world (Suez Canal, Mandeb Strait + Iran-Turkey cables), and the poor connectivity affected most western services in Iran – not just Telegram.

Moreover, the government denied that they required any kind of spying tools from Telegram, saying that the demand I received was fake and not authorized by any higher authorities.

I’d like to believe that this is true – it would mean that the Iranian people will continue to be able to use what I maintain is the best messaging service on the market. And since our system administrators confirm that the Iranian government’s report of cable disruption is probable, my earlier claim about Telegram getting blocked may have been inaccurate (or at least premature).

In that case, sorry for the false alarm, everyone. It’s easy to misinterpret the situation in markets that have a history of internet censorship – you might have heard that Facebook and Twitter have been blocked in Iran for a few years.

However, this doesn’t mean that Telegram can’t be blocked there in the future. Iranian authorities made it clear that they would block Telegram if it contained publicly available porn, i.e. porn bots and porn channels. If this is the only matter that poses a concern, there will hardly be any problem, since we already block most porn bots and channels anyway due to App Store restrictions. Anyway, the bottom line: we’re good in Iran. For now.

And let’s hope for the best.

Now, I appreciate Pavel Durov coming out with an apology for what ended up being an overreaction to what may have been happening in Iran, since not many others would so confidently backpedal on such serious claims (others would have just found a way to run with it). And, of course, I’m glad that the Telegram app is once again available for use in Iran.

But I want to draw your attention to the comment that I put in “bold”. Let me repeat it:

Iranian authorities made it clear that they would block Telegram if it contained publicly available porn, i.e. porn bots and porn channels. If this is the only matter that poses a concern, there will hardly be any problem, since we already block most porn bots and channels anyway due to App Store restrictions.

I have a saying: Don’t follow the money, follow the attitude. Generally, as I stated earlier, I appreciate Pavel Durov’s–and thus Telegram’s–anarchist and blatant anti-surveillance attitude. It’s the attitude I personally look for in everything. But while certainly the problem I’m about to describe is ultimately the fault of the Iranian government–and Apple (funny how similar those two are in attitude)–I’m a little dismayed at Telegram openly playing ball with the above described “porn” restriction.

Yes, the back-ass-wardness of Apple’s ethics is positively ridiculous. What, people don’t think sex exists in Cupertino? And the back-ass-wardness of the Iranian government (and let’s be clear, I’m just talking about the government, most of the people in Iran are very “hip and metro”, I know that personally) is terrifying since such “no porn” edicts are effectively backed by the threat of the gun in that country. And with the word “porn” being so loose in its definition by Apple, and by the Iranian government, as well, I’m sure, this is some serious censorship being performed here.

And while I can appreciate the need for Telegram as a company to act like they are playing ball with Apple–and in turn be able to placate the Iranian government–I don’t see any reason why Pavel Durov needed to be so explicit about taking down porn channels and porn bots on Telegram. Whether or not Telegram is actually shutting down and/or blocking porn on their app, we can’t really be sure (and maybe they’re not doing anything about porn at all, and they’re just paying lip service). Regardless, there are far better ways that this stance–lip service or not–could have been worded so as not to seem discouraging towards porn/sex on Telegram. In fact, I would have really appreciated if Pavel Durov just came out and said something to the effect of, “Not that I myself have any issue with porn and sexual activity in general”. Just make it 100% clear. Or perhaps he could have said that he doesn’t approve of Apple’s app standards, or the Iranian governments mandates…just say something that expresses disdain for this nonsense.

Certainly there are types of porn that I do not consider healthy and I am not a fan of, but I steer clear of making broad anti-porn statements, and I think when others do make such statements, it’s generally just thinly veiled conservative-idealism nonsense being expressed and is an excuse to control people socially. I’m not saying Durov is engaging in that, but it would have helped for him to take this Iran situation to make it clear how he feels about porn and sexuality in general being expressed and “pushed” on Telegram. I assume he is for freedom of expression, including on Telegram, but I can only assume. It would have been really helpful if he mentioned porn with some kind of “wink” to let people know something along the lines of, “Hey, I need to say to Apple and others that we’re doing something about porn, but really I don’t care. You guys and gals sex it right up all you want on Telegram”. I didn’t expect him to say that explicitly, but I can think of clever ways to have gotten that point across, and it’s an important one to get across, in my opinion.

So, in the end, I’m not saying to stop using Telegram, I’m just bringing this to your attention. If Telegram is actively taking down bots and channels based around sexuality, that is concerning, and if I found it that it was absolutely true, I would start looking for another app, and would call Pavel Durov’s philosophy into question. Freedom of association, freedom of expression, and freedom of speech are at the top of my list when it comes to human liberties, and any app that quashes any of the above cannot come with my recommendation. Have you ever heard me recommend Facebook? Nope, because that’s exactly what Facebook does. And sadly, there’s the possibility that Telegram is quashing all of the above, as well.

Again, I will continue to recommend Telegram, and use it regularly (I’ve helped make it rather popular in the Free State Project, thank you), but in light of this I will now be keeping a watchful eye on it and report if anything malicious comes up.

Carpe lucem!