Ukrainian lawmakers are debating banning Telegram. Here’s what to know. (2024)


New Atlanticist June 4, 2024

By Ivan Horodyskyy

As social media platforms grow, adapt, and proliferate, governments and the wider public are grappling with a basic question: How do companies guarantee—or compromise—privacy and security?

On April 24, US President Joe Biden signed a law banning TikTok in the United States—unless the Chinese company ByteDance sells its stake in TikTok in the next twelve months. The debate that led up to this law was conducted in public, where arguments were made about how to go about appropriately governing the US information space in a way that prevents foreign interference without jettisoning free expression and an interest in an open internet. The US debate will continue, while around the world many other countries grapple with similar tensions.

In that same spirit of transparency, it is worth looking at a bill proposed on March 25 in Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, that would ban Telegram in Ukraine unless the company implements certain changes to protect against national security threats.

In late April, Ihor Solovey, director of Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security, explained in an interview why he believes that using Telegram is risky due to its lack of transparency and potential control by Russia.Using the message app of it for sending personal data and for official purposes, especially in the public sector and military zones, is not recommended, he said. Anonymity on the platform is often used to spread false information, he added, including by Russian special services, which negatively affects public order and security in Ukraine.

Ultimately, decisions to ban or regulate Telegram must weigh Ukraine’s national security against its democratic values.

Telegram is a messaging app that positions itself as one that guarantees maximum privacy for users. Thanks to the combination of different functions (personal messaging, group chats, public information channels), it can also be used as a fully-fledged media outlet, as a tool of political and social influence, and as a business application. According to a recent poll by the Center for Democracy and Rule of Law (CEDEM), Telegram is the most influential online platform in terms of where Ukrainians get their news, far more popular than Facebook, TikTok, or X. Its impact is growing in other countries as well, such as Iran and Brazil. Telegram users are attracted to its variety of options. It is a communication platform, a media source, and a business instrument, all with the promise of anonymity, multifunctionality, and the ability to register even without a mobile number.

According to the CEDEM poll, 71.3 percent of Ukrainians obtain news from Telegram—which is an especially important consideration following the full-scale Russian invasion and ongoing air raid sirens and other warnings. There are at least fifty Ukraine-based Telegram channels that each have more than five hundred thousand subscribers, thirteen of which have more than one million subscribers.

Given Telegram’s widespread popularity in Ukraine, the potential ban is reportedly unpopular among citizens, despite the support of deputies from four of the Rada’s political groups, including some deputies from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Servant of People party. These deputies fear, first, the possibility that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) will access information about Telegram users and, second, the proliferation of Russian propaganda—mirroring a few of the concerns regarding China’s role with TikTok in the United States.

For the information security concern, Ukrainian lawmakers’ fears relate to the personality of Pavel Durov. He was a founder of VKontakte (VK), the Russian analogue of Facebook and the largest social network in the post-Soviet space. Later, he sold or was forced to sell his assets to Mail.Ru Group, which was controlled by US-sanctioned businessman Alisher Usmanov, who the US Treasury Department found to be “close” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Durov then emigrated to Dubai, where he founded Telegram.

Durov has always been surrounded by a halo of mystery. Even now, after he obtained citizenships from St. Kitts and Nevis, the United Arab Emirates, and France, there are persistent rumors that Telegram has connections with the FSB and that Russian intelligence services have permanent and effective access to Telegram’s servers and users’ data.

However, apart from these rumors about access to Telegram, the Ukrainian government has criticized the messaging app’s internal standards and previous decisions. For example, Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, the head of the Rada’s Freedom of Speech Committee, said earlier this year that Telegram’s administrators refuse to block channels that spread Russian propaganda or contact Ukrainian authorities. Oleksandr Melnychenko, spokesperson of Ukraine’s security service, accused Telegram of cooperation with the FSB and Roskomnadzor, a Russian censoring agency. Durov, in his recent interview with Tucker Carlson, strongly denied any claims about the messenger app’s connections with Russian authorities, asserting that these accusations are propagated and supported by competitors who are displeased with Telegram’s growing audience.

For the propaganda and disinformation concern, Telegram is no less popular in Russia, and the Kremlin uses Telegram to support its war in Ukraine and spread disinformation. This content is also available in Ukraine, which faces the prospect of a long war and the demoralization of Ukrainian society.

Telegram channels are also widely used for illicit activities: drug trading, p*rnography distribution, and blackmail. For example, the controller of one Telegram channel reportedly demanded as much as two hundred thousand dollars to stop a recent disinformation campaign. Although the Telegram administration blocks such activities, the number of channels, the ease of creating them, and the lack of consistent rules and practices around such blocks leave the problem unsolved.

It is not just a lack of oversight by Telegram that is a concern. At the end of April, Telegram “accidentally” blocked channels being used to help Ukrainian military and security services, only to unblock them later. This decision can be seen either as proof of connections with the Russian government or as a sign of influence in its relationship with the Ukrainian government. Furthermore, Telegram’s promise of confidentiality, anonymity, and free speech make it impossible for the Ukrainian government to enact effective countermeasures against such channels. Telegram’s administration is responsible for decisions on blocking channels and chats that share harmful or dangerous content and is guided by the internal standards it wrote and now interprets.

According to Durov, Telegram prioritizes users’ freedom to access uncensored information and opinions, even if biased, to enable them to make their own decisions. At the same time, he emphasizes that the Telegram administration bans accounts and bots that collect coordinates to target strikes or post direct personal information with calls to violence. Such a broad definition allows for wide discretion from administrators when making decisions on whether to block content. However, as with the potential TikTok ban in the United States, a Telegram ban would likely face criticism for impinging on the freedom of speech. Ukraine’s 2017 decision to block VK, for example, caused public outrage for this very reason. Blocking the main source of information during wartime and in conditions in which freedom of speech has already been restricted could cause accusations of censorship and lead to comparisons with Russia, which blocked Twitter and Instagram at the very beginning of the full-scale invasion.

At the heart of the Ukrainian resistance is its commitment and desire to be a democracy contrary to Russia. Mimicking Russia’s actions in controlling information flows undermines this democratic aspiration.

So, what does this mean for Ukraine’sapproach to Telegram?

The draft bill proposed on March 25 would establishspecial requirementsfor Telegram. These include the creation of local representative offices in Ukraine, the introduction of certain legal requirements (such as restrictions on certain advertising and requirements to allow responses and refutations to inaccurate information), and the requirement to disclose ownership structures and funding sources upon the request of the National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting. Another potential regulation, supported by former Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of UkraineOlesksiy Danilov, would require the official registration of Telegram channels as media, which would de-anonymize them.

These proposals have only a small chance of being supported and implemented, due in part to the lack of support from the current presidentialoffice. In addition to the fear of a negative response by the public, the Zelenskyy administration may also have practical doubts: Telegram is reportedly widely used by the authorities both for official purposes and to share needed information via anonymous channels, though the Office of the President denies this.

The probability that Telegram will voluntarily meet the requirements of the Ukrainian government, by, for example, opening a representative office in Ukraine or changing the blocking rules is minimal. And this is supported by a business argument: Ukraine’s market share among Telegram’s nine hundred million users is only about 2.5 percent.

In the case of digital platforms, market interests are powerful motivations. TikTok’s CEO, Shou Zi Chew, gave testimony to the US Congress in March 2023, and Meta has paid huge fines in the European Union—recognizing the authorities and cooperating with them—in large part because of the fear of losing huge markets for their products.

The debate over Ukraine’s ban on Telegram underscores the growing global struggle to balance national security with free speech and open information in the social media age. The widespread use of Telegram and its critical role in disseminating information during the conflict with Russia make a potential ban a significant challenge for the Ukrainian government.

The Ukrainian government fears the effects of disinformation amid the war, but Telegram’s anonymity and multifunctionality have made it indispensable for many Ukrainians. The most likely legislative proposal aims to impose regulatory requirements on Telegram in an attempt to find a middle ground. However, practical, and political challenges, as well as Telegram’s minimal dependence on the Ukrainian market, make significant changes unlikely.

Ultimately, decisions to ban or regulate Telegram must weigh Ukraine’s national security against its democratic values. As Ukraine navigates its way through war and geopolitical tensions, its lawmakers must be careful in their approach to regulating digital platforms so as not to undermine confidence in the country’s postwar democratic future.

On the other hand, Telegram and other digital platforms should take a more grounded approach to protecting free speech as a value, not just a selling point. Global impact means global responsibility.

Ivan Horodyskyy is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Litigation Project and cofounder of the Dnistryanskyi Center for Politics and Law.

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Image: Telegram Messenger logo on the App Store is seen displayed on a phone screen in this illustration photo taken in Poland on January 14, 2021. Signal and Telegram messenger apps gained popularity due to the new WhatsApp's privacy policy. (Photo illustration by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto)

Ukrainian lawmakers are debating banning Telegram. Here’s what to know. (2024)
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