Thursday, May 16, 2024

[Diplomat] Can Taiwan Block Telegram?

Can Taiwan Block Telegram? 

Taiwan, like many other liberal democracies, is grappling with the question of how to deal with illegal content on internet platforms. 

It was two years ago, in May 2022, that I wrote an op-ed for a Taiwan online magazine, entitled “Can Hong Kong block Telegram?” Little did I imagine that, in 2024, Taiwan itself would be embroiled in a controversial proposal by the government to ban the same messaging app there. 

It all started with a pornographic online forum called “Creative Private Room” (創意私房), which contained illegal sexual material such as revenge porn or sexually explicit videos and images of children. The incident was further sensationalized by media attention over the membership of a celebrity entertainer. 

After Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare took action to order a ban of the forum’s domain name, the site allegedly was resurrected in the form of a Telegram supergroup, lifting a page from the notorious “Nth Room” Telegram sex channel that rocked South Korea between 2018 and 2020. 

On May 5, in response to press questions, the head of the ministry’s Department of Protective Services said that, upon confirmation of the existence of such channels, they would contact Telegram to request their removal. If the company did not comply within 24 hours, the government would take measures to restrict access of Telegram, effecting a ban on the messaging app “in all of Taiwan.” 

What did the Taiwanese officials do to contact Telegram? The Department’s official said that they found Telegram’s email address. That announcement touched off a firestorm of criticism among netizens, with some of them labeling the ban as a “green great firewall,” punishing all the other law-abiding Telegram users. Many also cast doubt on the how Taiwan could actually block Telegram, something that “even Communist China couldn’t do.” 

Indeed, how have other jurisdictions in the world dealt with similar problems of illegal content posted on social media or messaging platforms, and how successful have they been in enforcing such restrictions to access?

Two years ago, speculations emerged that the Hong Kong authorities were considering blocking the Telegram app, after doxxing of personal information was alleged to have been made available on certain channels on the platform. In the end, nothing happened. At least part of the reason for the inaction must have also been due to the tremendous difficulty involved in blocking such a service on the internet. 

The most high-profile attempt to block Telegram was actually by Russia, where the app originated. After the passage of a Russian law to demand that all telecom operators store all voice and messaging data for possible government inspection, Telegram’s founder and owner, Pavel Durov, refused to comply. The Russian government then ordered a ban on Telegram’s service and enforced the ban by blocking over 19 million IP addresses associated with Telegram. Due to the fact that the messaging service was using several popular global cloud platforms to deliver its services, this approach caused massive collateral damage. Numerous legitimate websites and services, including some from the Russian government itself, were intermittently blocked and unreachable. 

Meanwhile, Duroy has been exiled from Russia since then, and the company is now based in Dubai. 

Other countries that tried to block Telegram included Iran, Cuba, Pakistan, Bahrain, and Brazil, and all ended up with mixed results and limited success. China has had more success, but only due to its uniquely tight control over its telecom infrastructure and the thorough censorship based on the Great Firewall and massive human surveillance effort. Telegram, along with virtually all other foreign messaging and social media apps, such as WhatsApp, Signal, Threads, Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), are simply ordered to be removed from all the major app download platforms. 

But, is it really what Taiwan wants — to be in the ignominious company of these repressive regimes? If the answer is “not really,” are there other ways to assist legitimate law enforcement?

While Germany had some success in 2022 when it requested Telegram to remove dozens of channels run by far-right extremist and conspiracy theorists, countries such as South Korea had not been able to receive the same degree of response from Telegram, even for a internationally scandalous case such as Nth Room. 

Another approach is to require digital platform companies to appoint a local representative, such as required by the European Union’s new content moderation law, the Digital Services Act (DSA). Similarly, Japan in 2022 also started to request foreign digital platforms to register with the authorities so as to ensure compliance with their legal obligations. In Japan, the goal was facilitating the resolution of any consumer damages arising from these platforms. 

Indeed, this is exactly the direction that Taiwan appears to be heading toward. On May 9, Taiwan’s Executive Yuan approved two draft bills — one on fraud crime harm prevention and another on the use and oversight of science and technology in investigations — as well as draft amendments to the Communication Security and Surveillance Act and Money Laundering Control Act, all aiming to strengthen law enforcement against rampant cybercrimes and online frauds. The bills will be sent to the Legislative Yuan for deliberation. 

If passed, the current draft will require digital platforms earning advertising incomes in Taiwan to set up a local headquarters, or appoint a local legal representative office, in order to be ready to respond to the government’s requests on content moderation. However, the current proposal in Taiwan, unlike the EU’s DSA, will not cover free messaging platforms such as Telegram. It remains possible that there will be calls to amend the proposed laws to address this potential loophole during the legislative process. 

On the other hand, the new legislations will inevitably enlarge the power of law enforcement to monitor or even surveil network traffic and the use of internet communications platforms. In the coming months, as Taiwan transitions to the new administration of President-elect Lai Ching-te, who takes office next week, one hopes that these bills will be debated vigorously, not only as they should be in the legislature, but also in the public arena. 

After all, Taiwan has been ranked at the top of Asia in terms of internet freedom by Freedom House, but its score has been dipping slightly in the last two years. Part of the reason must be the implication of recently enacted laws and administrative procedures to limit access to websites, domain names, or apps, in response to cybercrimes and disinformation campaigns. 

Balancing is always a hard act, particularly as even the civil rights community also wants law enforcement to be more effective, in order to protect the most vulnerable in society. But given that preventing cybercrimes is so elusive, it is critical that Taiwan and its citizens realize how easily its freedom and democracy can be eroded. The government and the public alike must stay vigilant against any measures that may give the authorities too much control over the free internet.

Published by The Diplomat on May 15 2024


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