Telegram Must Open Local Office, Flag Suspicious Accounts to Avoid Government Shutdown


JULY 18, 2017

Jakarta. The Indonesian government is demanding encrypted messaging service Telegram to open a representative office in Indonesia and give authorities back channel access to flag suspicious accounts — which could be used by suspected terrorists to communicate with each other — if it wants to continue operating in the country after the government partially shut down the service last week, a senior official said on Monday (17/07).

"[Telegram] has told us they are prepared to accede to three of our demands, but we want them to do at least four," Semuel Pangerapan, the Communication and Information Technology (ICT) Ministry's director general for applied informatics, said.

Apart from opening an office in Indonesia, the government wants Telegram to create a special channel to make communication easier and speedier between government authorities and the messaging service's response team.

The government also asked to be given authority to flag suspicious accounts or channels on Telegram and demand the messaging service to work with the government to improve its content filtering.

"We don't want to spy on the Indonesian people but we need to monitor those who intend to compromise security in this country," Semuel told reporters.

But despite conceding people might use their app to spread radical teachings, Telegram is unlikely to allow the government to access its data, especially since its main claim to fame is privacy.

"Many other governments have asked for a back channel access into the [Telegram] application; they've all been flatly refused," Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) Director Veryan Khan told the Jakarta Globe.

She added that TRAC has seen a lot of online chatter about the Telegram ban from Indonesian Islamic State (IS) sympathizers who are now worried they may lose access to IS propaganda or communication access with like-minded IS supporters in East Asia.

The Indonesian government has already blocked access to Telegram's web version — the application is still working — due to concerns it was being used to send large files — up to 1.5 gigabytes — containing radical and terrorist propaganda.

By Monday, tips and tricks on how to circumvent the block had already spread among IS supporters. "Indonesian Telegram channels are full of instructions on using VPN [Virtual Private Network] to access Telegram after a government ban," Khan said.

Prior to issuing the partial ban, the ICT Ministry sent six emails to Telegram between March 29, 2016 and July 11, 2017, but received no reply.

Pavel Durov, Telegram co-founder and chief executive, announced on Sunday the service has blocked access to all public channels that the Indonesian government believes contain terror-related propaganda.

"I've received a letter of apology from Pavel Durov; apparently he did not know the ministry already made inquiries about this matter since 2016," ICT Minister Rudiantara said in a statement sent to reporters.

"Durov has heard the ministry's demands and proposed a special communication channel to handle negative content, especially about radicalism and terrorism," he said.

The government will undo the block on Telegram's web version once the company fulfills its demands which, according to Semuel, "can take months."

Indonesia is not the first country to ban Telegram. The app has been blocked in Oman and some Gulf states in the past two years, while the United Kingdom and Australia have frequently voiced concerns over the app for its super-tight security, which they say creates its own safety risks.