Telegram’s star is on the rise, but as the secure messaging app used by protest organizers, political dissidents, revenge porn seekers, and white supremacists alike gets even more popular, reaching more than 500 million active users worldwide in recent days, it faces wider scrutiny. 

Those irked by Telegram’s limited content moderation in the past — researchers have nicknamed it “Terrorgram” due to a glut of Nazi extremists — have been complaining into the internet void for years, but a lawsuit filed Sunday adds a new spotlight to the controversy and a unique twist. 

The Coalition for a Safer Web wants Apple to boot Telegram from the App Store and at least $75,000 in damages.

A former U.S. ambassador and White House liaison for the Secretary of State has filed a lawsuit against Apple claiming that by hosting Telegram in its App Store, Apple is inflicting emotional distress upon him as an iPhone XR owner. Apple is also disregarding its own policies by letting App Store users download Telegram, the lawsuit states. The ambassador, Marc Ginsburg, who filed the suit along with his anti-extremism advocacy group The Coalition for a Safer Web, wants Apple to boot Telegram from the App Store and at least $75,000 in damages.

Downloads of Telegram have jumped in recent weeks, with more than 25 million new users flocking to the app. This comes as users look for alternatives to Whatsapp, a Facebook-owned messaging platform that confused users recently with policy changes. And as Parler users seek a new home after Apple and Google booted the right-wing messaging app from their app stores due to poor moderation of violent rhetoric related to the Capitol Hill riot that sullied Congressional halls and left five dead. 

While Telegram is seeing posts from far-right groups like the Boogaloo Bois and Proud Boys explode after the attack on the Capitol, it remains in the App Store, even as Apple suspended Parler for allowing similar groups to trumpet hate speech and recruit new members. Some of these groups on Telegram aren’t new, but they’ve increased in size.

Telegram said in a statement to Mashable that between Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol Hill riot, and Jan. 14, Telegram moderators “blocked 182 public communities related to the U.S. from disseminating calls for violence which could have otherwise reached tens of thousands of subscribers.” In contrast, before it was removed from the app stores, Parler was moving slowly as it considered moderating a flood of posts inciting and glorifying violence, relying on volunteers to handle the load. 

Telegram users can be part of both public and private channels and groups (you need an invite for the private ones) and send one-on-one messages to each other. Channels are used to broadcast information and can have an unlimited number of participants. Groups act like a group DM and can include up to 200,000 people.

While Telegram has been stepping up its enforcement against public communities that call for violence or share child porn, for example, the company refuses to process any complaints regarding private one-on-one or group chats, according to its FAQ.

The lawsuit, filed by Ginsburg, who is Jewish, specifically references anti-Semitism, racism, and calls for offline violence on the messaging app. Ginsburg and his coalition say Telegram isn’t doing enough moderation. They want to see extremist groups snuffed out, no matter where in any app they post messages. The Coalition for a Safer Web aims to pressure social media companies to squash anti-Semitism and extremist groups. It’s unsuccessfully called on Apple several times before to give Telegram the boot. Prior to the lawsuit, it complained to Apple that it believed Telegram was ignoring the coordination of “racist and anti-Semitic violence” on the app after George Floyd’s death and discussions of the Capitol attack.

“Telegram is currently being used to coordinate and incite extreme violence before the inauguration of President Elect Joe Biden on January 17, 2021. Some users have called on followers to abandon plans for a second protest in Washington in favor of surprise attacks nationwide,” the lawsuit states. 

In response to the lawsuit, Telegram said in its statement:

The Telegram moderation team is constantly monitoring public activity on the platform, processing reports from users as well as proactively removing public calls for violence… In January, over 3,000 public communities were banned for violating the company’s “no calls for violence” policy globally. Less than 6% of the calls for violence around the world that were taken down in January were related to events in the U.S. Overall, less than 2% of Telegram’s monthly active users are from the United States.

In 2018, Apple kicked Telegram out of the App Store because child pornography was proliferating on Telegram. Telegram promised to improve its moderation, and a few hours later, it returned to the App Store. Apple has been mum about whether Telegram’s policy to not respond to any user requests related to private discussions on the app, even if they incite violence, spread revenge porn, or boost hate speech, constitutes a loophole in its App Store guidelines.  

As Mashable has reported before, Apple “requires apps with user-generated content to offer users the ability to report objectionable content like defamation, violence, and porn.”

“Apple has allowed Telegram to be distributed through the App Store knowing that Telegram does not comply with Apple’s developer guidelines and that Telegram is routinely used to violate California’s hate speech law,” the lawsuit reads.

Apple didn’t responded to a request for comment about the lawsuit.

In comparison to Telegram, other messaging apps like Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger do allow users to report private messages that contain dangerous or illegal content. All Whatsapp messages between friends and family are end-to-end encrypted, which means no one but the sender and receiver can ever read the messages. Facebook messages are not end-to-end encrypted by default. Neither are Telegram messages, unless one initiates a so-called “secret chat” with one other user. Otherwise, your Telegram messages are encrypted in such a way that no one can access them on their way to Telegram’s servers, but once there, Telegram could see them if it wanted to (it says it doesn’t look).

It remains to be seen whether this unusual lawsuit has any legs. But one thing’s for sure: All eyes are on Telegram and other social media apps as President-elect Joe Biden’s highly-secured inauguration nears.

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