The popular messaging app Telegram has carved out a special place in politically closed countries, thanks to its promise of providing secure communication along with public expressions of support for the rights to privacy and freedom of expression. As a result, it has become an attractive tool for dissidents, activists and civil society organisations, and politically vulnerable communities to share information online, especially in spaces where online and offline censorship are common.
Naturally, this means that Telegram is the holder of vast amounts of sensitive data, and is host to communication channels containing information that could put some users in danger. As a result, user interactions on the platform have increasingly significant offline consequences.
This is true for the global communities served by Telegram, and as one of the most popular messaging platforms in Iran, this has been especially true for the Iranian community both inside and outside the country. The arrest and the execution of the administrator of the popular anti-government news channel AmadNews, and the data leak and the exposure of 42 million Iranian accounts online through forked versions of Telegram further highlight this point.
As a result, Telegram’s governance structures – the ways that it organises, protects, and regulates its users, their interactions, and their data – are highly consequential.
This is why Filterwatch engaged in a collaboration with Farzaneh Badiei – the Director of Social Media Governance Initiative at Yale Law School – to better understand the effects of Telegram’s governance mechanisms on its users in Iran.
The new report ‘The Tale of Telegram Governance: When the Rule of Thumb Fails’ – published by Yale’s Justice Collaboratory and supported by Filterwatch – shines a light on Telegram’s current governance mechanisms and practices in relation to three main areas of concern: content and user regulation, user safety and security, and relations with government authorities.
By analysing Telegram’s available policies and practices as well as surveying a number of Telegram channel administrators on issues they have faced on the platform, the report observed a number of shortcomings in Telegram’s processes and practices in terms of its claims to commitment to upholding the human rights of its users.
While Telegram makes statements that are clear in supporting the freedom of expression of its users and protecting vulnerable communities, a lack of clear regulation processes, along with Telegram’s techno-solutionist approach to regulating content, means that it is often unclear how and on what grounds certain decisions are made, or (worryingly) how Telegram manages its relationships with state authorities.
The report makes recommendations on how Telegram can address its shortcomings by transitioning from its current system of governance to instead focusing on procedural justice and community-building. This includes implementing principles such as: enabling the participation of users in decision making, and being transparent about decision-making processes. The report also recommends that Telegram embrace community empowerment practices such as town halls and security forums so that it can engage more effectively with its community, and develop more trusted relationships with its users.
It is our hope that this report’s findings and recommendations can highlight some of the ways Telegram can strengthen its stated commitments to upholding human rights principles, and thereby better protect its users from harm.