Telegram, the online haven for dealers and extremists, comes under Belgian supervision

Telegram, the online haven for dealers and extremists, comes under Belgian supervision
Telegram, the online haven for dealers and extremists, comes under Belgian supervision

If you want to get in touch with a cocaine dealer, Telegram is the right place. Simply enter the name of a Flemish port city known for its drug problems in the search bar of the free app. A handful of chat channels immediately appear that indicate, implicitly or otherwise (for example with a snow emoji), what it is all about: drug trafficking. Sometimes you have to click through to another channel, which in turn leads to a private chat, but it is all so intuitive that it hardly requires any effort. Along the way, there is even an offer for a “mileage correction” for cars and motorcycles.

The traffic in drugs and other illegal products and services is just one aspect of Telegram that makes security services nervous. The identity – and appeal – of the app can be summarized as ‘the Wild West of the internet’. This makes it an alternative to other social media, which monitor what passes through them more strictly. When soldier Jürgen Conings was on the run in 2021, a support group was created on Facebook that quickly had more than ten thousand members. After Facebook shut it down, an alternative channel on Telegram quickly grew. Messages are still posted there to this day. These are often directed against the government. A channel that was established at the time of the ‘freedom convoy’ in early 2022 is also still active.

Islamic State

Telegram was developed in 2013 by two Russian brothers and claims to have at least 700 million active users worldwide. In Europe there would be about 40 million. “For us, Telegram is an idea,” said one of its founders, Pavel Durov, in 2018. “The idea that everyone on this planet has the right to be free.” It is therefore not surprising that the app was the favorite communication channel of terrorist groups for years. Islamic State advised followers to use Telegram not long after its founding. Telegram is taking action against these terrorist messages, which are often spread via automated bots. In recent months it has blocked several Hamas propaganda channels, but the basic principle of ‘free communication’ remains sacred.

This translates into extremely limited moderation of content on the app, allowing all kinds of conspiracy theories to flourish.

The Belgian Institute for Postal Services and Telecommunications (BIPT) will become the supervisory authority for this controversial app. It will even be responsible for the whole of Europe.

“Suppose someone in the Netherlands is in a Telegram channel that calls for violence against a synagogue or mosque, and sends a report to Telegram but finds that nothing is done with it, he or she can file a complaint with BIPT,” says Mathias Vermeulen of the data rights office AWO. This principle applies to all persons or institutions between Lisbon and Helsinki who identify that there is illegal content on Telegram. If the app does not comply with the rules, BIPT can impose a penalty.

Waiting for parliaments

“That supervision will be quite a job,” Vermeulen expects. “Telegram is the platform that collaborates the least with governments, and compared to other apps, a lot is possible. In Germany, it has been under fire for years because there is a systematic failure to respond to questions and injunctions from the police regarding, for example, channels for arms trafficking or coordinated actions against refugees.”

Supervision of Telegram came to our country as a result of the European Digital Services Act (DSA). This set of rules came into full force in February and should give Member States more control over social media and other online services, including by controlling how they moderate content themselves. According to those rules, social media must also be represented in Europe. Telegram, based in Dubai, has appointed the Belgian company EDSR as its European representative. As a result, the Belgian telecom regulator BIPT becomes competent.

When asked for a response to his appointment by Telegram, EDSR mainly refers to the European rules, which means that they become the point of contact. Telegram itself did not yet respond to questions The standard sent to his press channel last Tuesday. In a standard response, it does mention that it played a role in pro-democracy protests in Iran, Russia and Hong Kong.

BIPT is still waiting for its official designation as competent authority. “That should be the case within a few days, with an announcement in the Government Gazette”, spokesperson Jimmy Smedts said. “Most of the monitoring of Telegram can take place from then on.” But BIPT will also have to work closely with regulators in the federal states. To this end, the federal, Flemish, French-speaking and German-speaking parliaments must still ratify a cooperation agreement.

The article is in Dutch

Tags: Telegram online haven dealers extremists Belgian supervision


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