Telegram app back on in Brazil after judge lifts suspension

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RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Internet providers and wireless carriers in Brazil stopped blocking Telegram on Saturday after a federal judge partially revised a ruling suspending the social media app over its failure to surrender data on neo-Nazi activity.

However, the judge kept in place a daily fine of $1 million reais (about $200,000) for Telegram’s refusal to provide the data, according to a press statement provided by the federal court that issued the ruling.

Complete suspension “is not reasonable, given the broad impact throughout the national territory on the freedom of communication of thousands of people who are absolutely strangers to the facts under investigation,” judge Flávio Lucas was quoted as saying in the statement.

Telegram had been temporarily suspended pursuant to a police inquiry into school shootings in November, when a former student armed with a semiautomatic pistol and wearing a bulletproof vest fatally shot three people and wounded 13 after barging into two schools in the small town of Aracruz in Espirito Santo state.

The 16-year-old is believed to have been a member of extremist channels on Telegram, where tutorials on murder and the manufacture of bombs were disseminated, the court’s statement said.

Federal police ordered Telegram to provide details on names, tax identity numbers, profile photos, bank information and registered credit cards of channel members and later disputed Telegram’s claim that it could not comply because the channel had been suspended, the court statement said.

Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov said in a statement Thursday that the company was appealing the Brazil-wide ban ordered the previous day, claiming compliance was “technologically impossible” and arguing that it is Telegram’s mission is to protect privacy and free speech.

The company says in an online FAQ that it has never shared data on users with any government.

It’s unclear how much of the requested data Telegram is able to provide. Only a phone number is required to create a Telegram account and a pseudonyms are routinely used. Further, beginning in December, Telegram offered the option of creating accounts with anonymous numbers.

The court statement noted Telegram’s “past clashes with the judiciary” in Brazil. Last year, Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes ordered a nationwide shutdown of Telegram, arguing it hadn’t cooperated with authorities. It lasted two days and was lifted after Durov blamed his company’s initial lack of response on a communications snafu.

“Technology companies need to understand that cyberspace cannot be a free territory, a different world … with its own rules created and managed by the agents who commercially exploit it,” Lucas, the judge in the current case, said in Saturday’s statement.

Brazil has been grappling with a wave of school attacks. There have been almost two dozen attacks or violent episodes in schools since 2000, half of them in the last 12 months, including the killing of four children at a day care center April 5.

Brazil’s federal government has strived to stamp out school violence with a particular focus on the influence of social media. The goal is to prevent further incidents, particularly holding platforms responsible for failing to remove content that allegedly incites violence.

Regulation of social media platforms was a recurring theme earlier this month when President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva met with his Cabinet ministers, Supreme Court justices, governors and mayors.

Telegram has been blocked in the past by other governments, including Iran, China and Russia.

Durov, an ethnic Russian whose company is based in the United Arab Emirates, has managed to coexist with the Kremlin despite its crackdown on speech and Western media following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

So-called “patriotic” hackers loyal to the Kremlin use the app to organize cyberattacks on Ukrainian and NATO targets. The other side uses it to fight back.

Security researchers and intelligence agencies regularly track certain Telegram groups, focusing on ransomware gangs and other cybercriminals, disinformation purveyors, terror groups and others inciting violence.


AP Technology Writer Frank Bajak in Boston contributed to this report.

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