Telegram is one of the world's most popular chat apps – and possibly the most dangerous. There is little regulation of the platform, which is popular with criminals and terrorists. Who is the mastermind behind it?
Pavel Durov squats shirtless in the lotus position on a hotel roof, the skyline of Dubai stretching out in the background. The Instagram photo, which looks like it could be one of thousands of other selfies from random influencers, is one of the rare signs of life from one of the world’s richest and most influential internet entrepreneurs. Some call the 36-year-old "Russia’s Zuckerberg” because he founded the Russian Facebook clone VKontakte in 2006. But his latest investment is much more significant: Telegram, arguably the world’s most dangerous messenger service.
Little is known about the Russian billionaire, who is considered to be the richest person in his adopted home of Dubai. And what he does say in public often sounds puzzling. "The outside world is a reflection of the inside one,” he wrote as the caption under his Instagram photo.
Durov’s app is a global player, having been installed on 570 million smartphones. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the app has been more popular than ever, and the messenger service is considered to be one of the few communications platforms that can keep pace with products from Silicon Valley. Millions of users switched this year from WhatsApp to Telegram, including many in Germany.
But Telegram isn’t just a WhatsApp with different roots. The service touts itself as a platform that is beyond the reach of states and authorities, a place where anyone can write and make whatever claim they want. This attracts conspiracy theorists, like Germany’s "Querdenker” movement, right-wing extremists, drug dealers and con artists. It doesn’t take much searching to find a "hit list” with the names of members of the German parliament on it. Counterfeiters use the app to peddle fake COVID-19 vaccination cards, dealers use it to sell all kinds of drugs. Crimes are openly and visibly planned and committed on Telegram. The app has become the equivalent of a darknet in your pocket.
Every internet platform is faced with the question of where to draw the line when it comes to freedom of expression and prohibited content. Following the last U.S. election, Twitter decided to ban Donald Trump from the service for the long term, and Facebook stepped up its crackdown on hate speech. Durov’s Telegram, though, only sporadically deletes content.
The authorities are powerless, because Durov denies them access to user data. He has set up an opaque web of companies that is difficult to penetrate and makes government access even harder. The old and rarely true saying about the internet being a lawless place really does apply to Telegram. Durov has registered companies in the Virgin Islands and Belize. "Me myself, I’m not a big fan of the idea of countries,” he told the New York Times in 2014.
Other services cooperate with the authorities in response to judicial requests. For years, though, German prosecutors didn’t even know what address to use to reach Telegram.
There is now an address in Dubai, but investigators told DER SPIEGEL that there is no point in sending inquiries there. They say that they have never received a response from the company when trying to find out who is behind an account on which crimes are being committed. And Telegram is proud of that fact, writing on its website: "To this day, we have disclosed 0 bytes of user data to third parties, including governments.”
From a legal standpoint, Telegram has thus far largely been a blind spot. Although politicians around the world have been trying to regulate internet companies for years, the laws barely cover messenger apps. Germany’s Network Enforcement Act, which requires Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to delete any illegal or harmful content that is reported to them, didn’t previously apply to Telegram.
German Authorities Want To Crack Down
But that is about to change. DER SPIEGEL has learned that the German Justice Ministry is demanding that Telegram submit to the law. It is seeking to require the platform to make itself accessible to the authorities, to delete criminal content promptly and to actively pass on user data to investigators. The Federal Office of Justice, which is part of the Justice Ministry, has also opened proceedings to fine Telegram for failing to designate a contact person for the authorities and for not offering a criminal complaint procedure for criminal content as required under German law. The company could face fines as high as 55 million euros. The Federal Office of Justice sent two letters from Bonn to Dubai ordering hearings on the matter. On May 20, they were transmitted as what is called a diplomatic note verbale by the German Embassy to the Foreign Ministry of the emirate.
Still, it is unlikely that will do much to impress Pavel Durov. A case from December 2011 provides a hint of how he responds to government inquiries. That year, Russia was experiencing the largest anti-Kremlin protests since the end of the Soviet Union, and Durov’s hometown of St. Petersburg also saw 10,000 people taking to the streets against electoral fraud and Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency.
Durov was still the head of the social network VKontakte, the Russian-language Facebook clone, which had more than 100 million users at the time. The Russian government was unhappy with the fact that opposition groups had organized the protests using the social network. The Russian domestic intelligence agency FSB demanded that Durov shut down the groups, but instead of obeying the order, he published the letter from the intelligence service on Twitter along with a photo showing a dog in a hoodie sticking its tongue out. Three days later, armed officers with the special Russian police force OMON showed up at the door of his luxury apartment. "They seemed to want to break the door,” Durov later recalled in an interview with the New York Times. He peered at the officers through his intercom monitor but refused to open the door. They left after an hour.
That anecdote marks the beginning of Durov’s battle with the Russian government and the struggle of modern digital Russia against old power elites. It’s also the founding legend of Telegram: As the security forces stood outside his door, he has claimed, he came to the realization that he lacked a secure communication channel with his brother. So he had to create one. Shortly thereafter, work began on Telegram, and the app was ready to launch by August 2013.
A Caribbean Passport for $250,000
But the Russian government wasn’t finished with Durov. First, he was investigated for an alleged incident during a traffic control, and then a businessman close to the Kremlin bought shares in VKontakte. Durov refused to hand over the data of Ukrainian users protesting against then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to the FSB secret service. He was dismissed from his own company and left his home country a few days later.
He traveled the world like a nomad with a passport from St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean that he bought for $250,000. He would post photos of his stops, from a Telegram party in Barcelona to a work meeting in an Italian castle. He often visited Germany, where he would speak at tech conferences in Munich and Berlin.
Years later, he finally settled in Dubai. Entrepreneurs like him are exempt from taxes in the Gulf, which was important to him even as he was founding Telegram. On the other hand, the city is controlled with all the instruments of a modern surveillance state and NGOs criticize the human rights situation there. Nevertheless, Durov felt safe and even met with the crown prince of Dubai and had his photo taken together with him on the roof of a skyscraper.
One place you won’t find him is at the company’s office. It’s only a few minutes by car from the Dubai hotel where Durov had himself photographed in a lotus position to the Kazim Towers. The two buildings, each with 53 floors, are located near the popular marina promenade. Telegram’s office is located on the 23rd floor of Tower A.
"We Don’t Even Have any Contact with Them"
Six doors lead off a marble-floored hallway. The brown door with number 2301 on it belongs to the Telegram office. There is neither a sign nor a buzzer to indicate the tenant, nor is there any response to several knocks on the door, which is locked. Down at the desk, the receptionist says she hasn’t seen anyone go into the office in the three years that she has worked there. "It’s very strange, we don’t even have any contact with them. None.” But she says that Telegram is registered in the system.
Much else remains shrouded in mystery – even the number of employees wasn’t clear for a long time. In video testimony in January 2020, Durov told a U.S. court that 25 to 30 people work on Telegram’s core team. Former employees who still have ties with the team confirm that. They say that few names are public for security reasons.
However, the name of one important person in the company is known: Pavel’s older brother Nikolai Durov, who is responsible for the technology. A child prodigy who began reading at the age of three, he went on to complete two doctorates in mathematics, including one he earned from the University of Bonn in Germany. His German professor was a recipient of the Fields Medal, which has a similar status to the Nobel Prize in the world of mathematics. Like Pavel, Nikolai has also been interested in programming since his childhood. The siblings mostly grew up in St. Petersburg, raised by a father who is a professor and a mother who is a lecturer.
Former employee Andrei Lopatin has known Nikolai since his school days. The two won programming competitions together at college and later worked at VKontakte and Telegram. Lopatin recalls how he sat with Nikolai at the Durov family dacha as they designed the technical foundations for the messaging app. The app needed to be both secure and fast.
Lopatin, who later left the company, is one of the few former employees willing to provide information publicly. He chooses his words carefully when discussing the Durovs. He says the relationship between the brothers was close and that all strategic decisions were made by Pavel. To the outside world, Telegram looks like a boys’ club, and Durov doesn’t think much of women as programmers, says Lopatin.
Former employee Anton Rosenberg describes the Telegram team as Durov’s "cult.” Rosenberg caused a stir back in 2017 for suing after he was fired as a senior programmer. Durov has known most of Telegram’s employees for years, Rosenberg said in a video call. It is, he says, a close-knit community in which Pavel Durov alone calls the shots.
Once the Islamic State's Preferred App
In interviews with former company employees, a picture forms of a company CEO whose drive at Telegram isn’t money, but influence and global recognition. Durov’s vision for the app is for it to be a platform where as many people as possible can communicate and share information freely. And no one should be able to influence him – not even governments. That, at least, is the unanimous consensus of several colleagues.
"Basically, Durov sees himself as the engineer of his own universe,” says Nikolay Kononov, the author of a book about the Telegram founder. Durov’s fascination with the movie "Matrix” and its main character, the hacker Neo, jibes well with that. His enthusiasm for the film was so great that he eventually began dressing all in black, just like Neo. When asked at the time of his high school graduation in 2001 where he saw himself in 10 years, he answered: "I want to be an internet totem.”
He no longer grants interviews today. Pavel Durov and members of his team neither answered the emails and messages sent by DER SPIEGEL nor did they respond to our list of questions. At most, he communicates with the public through his Telegram channel or sporadic Instagram posts.
The brothers have created a global success story, with Pavel as the strategist and Nikolai as the genius programmer in the background. The two make a good team. Telegram often offers user-friendly features earlier and better than the competition – things like funny stickers. Telegram offered its end-to-end encryption long before WhatsApp took that step, briefly earning it a reputation for being Islamic State's favorite chat app.
Of particular importance for Telegram’s growth in recent years are the functions allowing for groups and channels. In the groups, whether public or private, up to 200,000 people can chat with each other, while channels allow the creator to blast their messages to an unlimited number of subscribers. On WhatsApp, by contrast, groups can include 256 members at most, which aligns with the Facebook subsidiary’s strategy of not becoming a public space.
These are the functions that have made Telegram into much more than just a messenger app for private communication. The "Querdenken” movement in Germany, for example, uses several different Telegram channels to organize its protests in numerous cities. The founder of the movement, Michael Ballweg, says the app is a "central factor” in the group’s success. The result has been that Telegram in Germany now provides a home to a network of corona-truthers and conspiracy theorists, but it is one that also includes neo-Nazis and right-wing terrorists.
The Rare Blocking of a Conspiracy Theorist
That can be seen by an analysis performed by the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy (CeMAS), an NGO that keeps tabs on digital extremism. According to that analysis, the Telegram channel belonging to Attila Hildmann – the vegan cookbook author and right-wing conspiracy theorist from Germany – demonstrates how criticism of coronavirus measures can lead to conspiracy theories on the way to right-wing extremist radicalization. In more than 1,000 instances, the CeMAS analysis notes, Hildmann shared content from a channel that was full of "anti-Semitism, annihilation fantasies and glorification of both violence and the Nazis.”
Most recently, Hildmann went after the comedian Carolin Kebekus after she released a satirical corona song together with well-known German health expert Karl Lauterbach, who is also a parliamentarian with the center-left Social Democrats. One of Hildmann’s subscribers noted that "under Hitler, she would have been thrown into a labor camp.” Three hours later, Hildmann suggested that his readers buy themselves a crossbow. "You have a right to self-defense,” he wrote, complete with a rebate code for the shop selling the crossbows.
Since Tuesday afternoon, Hildemann’s channel can no longer be reached from mobile devices that run Apple or Google operating systems.
Telegram’s blocking of such a right-wing extremist channel is "a major exception,” says Flemming Ipsen of the youth-protection organization jugendschutz.net. "Thus far, we have been unable to identify an active and systematic approach by Telegram against actionable content.”
CeMAS analysts share this view: "Because the operator almost never intervenes, Telegram has become a central spot for conspiracy ideologies and right-wing extremist content on the web,” says Miro Dittrich, who produced the analysis together with the political scientist Josef Holnburger.
So-called "enemy lists” circulate on Telegram as well, with names, and sometimes even addresses, of politicians. Following the April vote in German parliament on the introduction of the corona "emergency brake,” stringent government lockdown measures aimed at breaking the third wave of the virus that gave the chancellor exceptional powers in decision-making, it only took two-and-a-half hours before an "assassination list” appeared, including the names of all the representatives who had voted in favor of the law. "Potential perpetrators could feel encouraged by such lists, because they might believe that they are backed by a majority,” says Dittrich. Telegram did not delete the lists.
The channel belonging to the German musician Xavier Naidoo also shows how openly violence is celebrated on Telegram. According to the analysis from CeMAS, Naidoo has shared content from particularly extreme channels on more than 150 occasions since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. "Off with their heads,” reads one of the entries shared by Naidoo, referring to the Vatican, the United Nations and "Jewish freemasons.”
Even terrorists can become heroes on Telegram, as can currently be seen in the U.S. Various Telegram channels there are celebrating a 28-year-old Texan named Coleman B., who was recently arrested after he used his mobile phone to send out a threat that U.S. investigators determined represented an imminent danger. They are convinced that he was planning to go on a shooting spree in a Walmart. When they raided his apartment, they found weapons, ammunition and flags bearing Nazi symbols.
Preventing the "Unthinkable"
Coleman B. had recently changed his Telegram username to that of the right-wing extremist mass-murderer from Christchurch, New Zealand. The sheriff responsible in the case said that with the arrest, they had managed to prevent "the unthinkable.”
On Telegram, by contrast, users voiced their solidarity with the suspect, in particular a group called Injekt Division, which the suspect apparently founded and of which he claimed to be the "president.” In one post, he promised his followers to prepare them for terrorism.
Groups and incidents such as this one have earned Durov’s messaging app the nickname "Terrorgram.” Some channels include instructions for making bombs, constructing weapons or brewing poisonous concoctions. One group, which also has a cell in Germany, has been linked to five murders in the U.S. Right-wing terrorists from "Revolution Chemnitz” and the "Oldschool Society” conversed in a Telegram group. Anis Amri, the terrorist who killed 12 people when he drove a truck into a Berlin Christmas market in 2016, chatted via Telegram with Islamic State terrorists in Libya prior to his attack.
Telegram is home to almost every imaginable infraction that can be committed on the internet. Arms dealers are on the channel, as are people offering counterfeit money and hacked data. Some groups focused on manipulating financial markets have membership rolls in the six figures on the channel. Because of the numerous drug groups on Telegram, the Berlin police established a team specifically to address the messenger-group narcotics trade and have since identified more than 100 dealer rings in Berlin alone, some of them with more than 20,000 members. In contrast to the Darknet, where buyers have to know specific black-market addresses, banned offerings are extremely easy to find on Telegram.
The company says that illegal content is not allowed on its app. But implementation of that rule is lacking, as a study performed last year by jugendschutz.net shows.
Where Does Durov Stand Politically?
The German Interior Ministry has long classified Telegram as a problematic channel. "National laws, whether German or European, apparently play no role for these people,” says one leading Interior Ministry official. If the company refuses to cooperate, he says, one could imagine blocking the service in Germany in an extreme case. "No platform that is used by millions of people in the EU is allowed to ignore our legal framework,” says German Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht, who favors regulating messaging services like Telegram at the European Union level.
With the general election in Germany approaching this autumn, officials here are concerned that the platform could become a significant source of misinformation that reaches huge numbers of people.
Yet in repressive countries, the same app is often one of the most effective weapons available to pro-democracy movements, such as those in Hong Kong, Iran and Belarus. When tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Minsk in August 2020 to protest election fraud, the Telegram channel Nexta quickly became the movement’s most important instrument. Dictator Alexander Lukashenko blocked access for days on end to websites and messaging services, but Pavel Durov ensured that Telegram remained online. At the time, the team behind Nexta included the blogger Roman Protasevich, whose Ryanair flight was recently forced to land in the Belarusian capital of Minsk.
This conflicting image of Telegram raises the question: Where exactly does Pavel Durov stand politically?
In the past, he has leaned more toward libertarianism. The world is changing too fast for lawmakers to keep up, he once wrote. As such, he continued, it would be best in the 21st century world to avoid regulation altogether. Such views would seem to be consistent with his practice of doing almost nothing to prevent illegal and extremist content on Telegram and of publicly resisting all censorship.
A former colleague of his, Anton Rosenberg, believes that such positions are primarily the product of business considerations. "The fight for freedom sells well and attracts new users,” he says. Others who have known Durov throughout his career say he has largely tried to stay out of politics. Ilya Perekopsky, who has worked with Durov for many years and is now Telegram vice president describes the philosophy as follows: "Remain neutral.”
Even if the Russia opposition celebrated Durov as a hero in 2011 after he publicly stood up to the Russian security agency FSB, his primary motivation likely had to do with his business interests. He simply didn’t want to lose any users to the competition.
The financial health of Telegram remains Durov’s secret. It is clear, though, that the messaging app produces plenty of expenditures: In the 2020 video testimony provided to a U.S. court, he said that he had invested around $218 million in Telegram by 2017. Independent estimates agree that he brought in between $300 and $400 million with the sale of his final stake in VKontakte. By the time he was 28, he wrote in a blog entry, he had already earned "hundreds of millions” – but, he added, "that never made me happy.”
During his time at VKontakte, he literally threw money out the window. Together with his long-time friend and deputy Perekopsky, he dropped 5,000-ruble banknotes – worth the equivalent of 124 euros at the time – out of the windows of their office on the sixth floor of the magnificent Singer House in the heart of St. Petersburg. Former co-worker Rosenberg still remembers that day. It was the anniversary of the city’s founding and the streets were full. "First, they just tried to throw the notes, but because of the wind, they got stuck on the façade ornamentation. So, they started folding the notes into paper airplanes and flying them down to the street.” It caused quite a commotion below. The act has been immortalized in the Telegram logo, a white paper airplane representing freedom.
Close Contact with Wirecard
In 2017, the Durovs pursued a bold plan designed to bring in revenues for Telegram without breaking the promise of a free, ad-free app. The idea was to create a cryptocurrency for the messaging app along with a blockchain system called Telegram Open Network, or TON. The app was to allow users to send money back and forth, and also do some shopping. The team collected $1.7 billion from investors, among whom were Russian oligarchs, a fund belonging to Roman Abramovich and the fugitive Wirecard executive Jan Marsalek. The latter was an enthusiastic fan of Telegram and used it to send personalized stickers with his likeness on them.
Contact between Telegram and the German company Wirecard, which has since become mired in scandal, were quite close, with each company having a presence in Dubai in the same office tower. In April 2019, Wirecard officially announced its cooperation with TON Labs.
In internal Wirecard emails, then-CEO Markus Braun wrote to his employees that "its potential makes it one of the biggest deals in our history.” A TON Labs executive told DER SPIEGEL that the deal never resulted in any kind of real collaboration or joint offerings. He says he is familiar with the name Marsalek, but claims never to have met the man personally, adding that contact between the two companies primarily took place at the developer level. All joint plans with the German company were then buried in October 2019, he says.
The unsuccessful attempt to launch a cryptocurrency is perhaps the largest setback the Durov brothers have suffered. In October 2019, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) imposed an immediate halt to the sale of the cryptocurrency, alleging the sale to be an impermissible stock market launch. Telegram criticized the move as being "unreasonable and wholly unnecessary,” but the court responsible for such cases declined to overturn the decision. Telegram even had to pay a penalty of $18.5 million.
His cryptocurrency plans having flopped, Durov has been taking in money since March in a more conventional way, having issued more than a billion dollars’ worth of bonds. Furthermore, rumors have recently begun circulating in the Russian media of a possible IPO – with a speculative market value of between $30 and $50 billion. Furthermore, ads will ultimately make an appearance on Telegram, but only in public channels and not in private chats.
It is possible that in the future, capital will be more of a determining factor for the course charted by Telegram than government attempts to regulate the service. Advertisers and investors want cordial environments, after all. Durov must also be wary of spoiling things with Apple and Google, since he needs their app stores to remain relevant.
The chat app Parler demonstrated what happens if you get on their bad side. The storming of the Capitol in January was organized using Parler – and soon thereafter, both Apple and Google threw the chat platform out of their app stores, essentially destroying Parler’s reach and significance. Pavel Durov must be careful if he wants to avoid that fate.
With additional reporting by Monika Bolliger, Alexander Chernyshev and Roman Höfner
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