Germany is considering banning Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, after accusing it of facilitating hate speech and conspiracy theories. The app has repeatedly ignored calls to ban anti-vaccine groups and other related content.
The debate over Telegram falls right as the German parliament meets to discuss whether Covid vaccines should become mandatory. Over the past few weeks, violent demonstrations broke out all over the country.
Some officials even received death threats for siding with the government. In December 2021, one German Telegram group shared death threats directed at the governor of the state of Saxony, leading to police raids.
One of the channels that is being used to mobilise anti-vaccine protesters is Telegram.
The encrypted messaging platform has grown in popularity in Germany over the past few years. Between 2018 and 2021, the share of users who regularly message on Telegram rose from 7% to 15%, according to a survey by German data analysis company Statista.
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.
Germany's tough stance on hate speech
With this in mind, politicians have set their sights on tighter controls on Telegram. They want to require the app to delete messages that contain death threats or hate speech and identify their authors.
Nancy Faeser, Germany's Interior Minister, says if Telegram doesn’t comply with the new rules, the government could fine or even ban Telegram completely – which would make Germany the first Western country to outlaw the app.
This is not the first time that Germany has tried to curb hate speech. In 2017, Germany passed a controversial law that required the social network giants to remove illegal content and report it to the police.
The country has some of the world's strictest laws on free speech, mostly due to its Nazi past and acknowledging that the rise of National Socialism had been fueled by propaganda and fake news. To this day, inciting hate and violence can land you in prison in Germany.
A hands-off approach
But unlike all of the other social media giants, Telegram has repeatedly refused to cooperate with authorities. The company was founded in 2013 by Russian entrepreneurs Pavel and Nikolai Durov on the premise that users could communicate beyond the reach of governments.
Since then, Telegram has provided refuge to dissidents from Russia to Iran, helping them to organize their work and exchange information outside of government repression and control. Telegram is banned or heavily regulated in countries such as China, India, and Belarus.
But this hands-off approach has also turned the messenger into a safe haven for conspiracy theorists and extremists — in particular after many were banned from larger social media platforms.