The Indonesian government’s partial blocking of the messaging application Telegram – which has several million users in the country – may be an effective tool to pressure the tech company to comply with government requirements, but not to curb extremism as it claims.
Pro-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) groups in Indonesia and elsewhere have largely switched to Telegram as their preferred social media following the massive suspension of extremist accounts by Twitter and Facebook in 2014. Telegram was considered safer because of its encryption technology – which WhatsApp did not offer until 2016 – but also due to its founder’s fame as a champion of privacy rights. Telegram founder Pavel Durov has, for example, defied the Russian government when asked to release personal details of opposition activists.
On 14 July, two years after the exodus of ISIL sympathisers to the encrypted chat app, the government, through the minister of communication and information technology, suddenly announced the blocking of Telegram’s web service. It also threatened to block its mobile app if the company failed to meet government demands to take down any channel or group it considered radical. The minister said that Telegram “could endanger national security” as there were “many channels in the platform that contain radical propaganda, extremism, hate speech, incitement or instructions to make bombs”.
My research on several dozen pro-ISIL Telegram groups since 2015, however, shows that the majority of their chats are about socialising rather than plotting. For the latter, they much prefer to meet offline for safety reasons. The police mentioned three terrorist plots in 2016-2017 that were allegedly “ordered” by Bahrun Naim, a key Indonesian ISIL figure in Syria, via Telegram. But such cases are hardly exceptional – terrorist leaders of all stripes have used various online platforms to release speeches, exhortations, and instructions. In fact, one does not need Telegram to get bomb making instructions – they can be easily found on Google.
The government should have learned from previous experience that cutting access to radical websites is ineffective, as these sites can still be reached simply by using proxy browsers. Further, the government blocked 22 radical sites in 2015 but ultimately backed down following protests from Islamist groups (whose sites were also affected just because they were ultra-conservative, not extremist). So why ban the web version of Telegram?
The partial ban seems to have been directed more toward the tech enterprise than its rogue users per se. Indonesia had previously threatened to block Google to make it comply with the country’s regulations on taxation and “permanent establishment” of a representative office. It appears to have succeeded. The government is deploying the same coercive tactics on Telegram, and they seem to be working too.
Three days after the ban, on 17 July, Telegram CEO Durov released a statement, acknowledging his failure to promptly respond to the government’s requests to block some radical channels and promising to improve cooperation, including by establishing “a direct channel of communication” with the government. But it was not enough. The government has now imposed another condition to lift the ban: it has asked Telegram to open a local office in Indonesia, much like Yahoo, Facebook, and Google. It remains to be seen whether Telegram will be willing to concede.
Even if the threat of a ban does make Telegram more willing to take down terrorism-related content or share information, the ban is unlikely to have a major impact on terrorism prevention or eradication because extremists are already starting to move to other, even more impenetrable, apps. Many militants saw the blocking as an opportunity to explore other apps, particularly Threema, which reportedly has better encryption and privacy features than Telegram. The ban has also pushed more ISIL sympathisers to use browsers like Orbot and Tor, which, among other things, can bypass locally banned sites and conceal the users’ real IP addresses. All of this would make it harder for security agencies to track them.
Further, the ban could drive extremists to move on from jihad in the media to real action. In the groups I monitor there was a brief panic among ISIL sympathisers when the ban was first announced but they quickly saw the bright side. Some said that it meant that “the government was losing”, others talked about a revenge attack by hacking and defacing government sites, which they had done before. Still others saw it as a “warning” that they should “start holding knives, bayonets, swords and revolvers…[rather] than mobile phones and […] monitoring and spying on the enemies rather than checking our phones”.
Removing access to Telegram is at best a manoeuvre to bring giant tech companies in line with government regulations. But as a measure to counter extremist propaganda and recruitment efforts online it is ill-informed and will be ineffective. A smarter way would have been to infiltrate extremist chat groups because Telegram provides very rich and rare insights into militants’ thinking.
In the long term, though, Indonesia needs better, evidence-based preventive programs. A good starting point would be finding out why so many young people are attracted to extremist ideas and seek solace in radical communities online.