Close-up of human hand holding a cellphone displaying icon for the Telegram communications app, Lafayette, California, September 22, 2021. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)


Spain was hours from banning Telegram because judge ‘did not know what it was’


Spain, which was at the point of banning the Telegram app this week, backtracked on the decision after searches for VPNs skyrocketed.

Telegram’s high privacy safeguards have made it popular with dissidents in Russia and Iran, who have used it to organise protests, as well as drug dealers and sex workers closer to home. Across the EU, 41 million users use it every month, according to the company that runs it.

On March 22, Spain’s Judge Santiago Pedraz issued an order that would have blocked the app in Spain from March 25.

The Audiencia Nacional (High Court) judge made the decision after complaints from Spanish media companies Mediaset, Atresmedia, and Movistar Plus that the platform had not removed their copyrighted content shared on the app.

Google searches in Spain for “VPN” (virtual private networks, which allow users to access content unavailable in their own country) increased by nearly three times on 23 March, according to Google Trends.

“Even if #Telegram ends up being banned, you can still access it with #ProtonVPN for free by connecting to a country outside of Spain,” the VPN service Proton VPN advised on Twitter/X March 26.

“There is no other type of measure that can stop the repetition of the reported events”, Pedraz wrote confidently in his court order.

Judge Pedraz has now suddenly backtracked, though, criticising his own planned ban, saying it would cause “a clear prejudice to those millions of users who use it (the vast majority without any link to illicit activities).”

In many cases, he said, these users “would be prevented from performing professional tasks,” Spain’s El Diario newspaper reported.

Rights groups had quickly noted that Pedraz’s court order banning Telegram in all of Spain appeared disproportionate.

“It’s like closing a province because a robbery occurred there”, said Spain’s El País newspaper.

Others observed it seemed odd to ban Telegram on copyright grounds, when the app offers channels for child pornography, drug dealing, and illegal handgun sales.

“It is as if they shut down the internet because there are websites that illegally host content protected by copyright,” argued Ruben Sanchez, general secretary of Spanish consumer advocacy group Facua.

But, perhaps more shockingly, it appeared “the judge did not even know what Telegram was”, says Spanish technology lawyer Sergio Carrasco.

Telegram has 8 million users in Spain, where it is the fourth most-popular instant messaging platform.

Still, Judge Pedraz appears to have thought it was a file-sharing app based in the Virgin Islands, Carrasco says.

Telegram is registered in the Virgin Islands. Officials there had not responded to Pedraz’s July 2023 Spanish court order asking them to make the company identify the owners of accounts uploading pirated content.

But Pedraz had not communicated the request correctly to Telegram, which “surely, was not even aware of his request”, Carrasco says.

Telegram “has a designated person in charge in the European Union”, and in compliance with the EU Digital Services Act, it indicates on its website a representative in Brussels to contact with legal requests, says Carrasco.

“He should have gone down this route at least,” he says.

The judge also does not appear to have grasped what, on a technical level, banning Telegram would have involved.

Internet service providers would, at least, have needed to be told to enforce the ban, but several told Spain’s ABC newspaper they had received no court orders to this effect.

Hours before the ban was to have taken effect, Judge Pedraz, his curiosity apparently piqued, requested a report on Telegram from Spain’s General Information Commissioner’s Office, and effects that banning it might have.

Banning Telegram would have placed Spain in a select category of countries that also include China, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea along with Somalia.

Telegram, which offers protected communications to dissidents in Iran but which Islamic State also used to communicate with the perpetrators of the March 24 concert hall attack, raises philosophical issues. Do we want an internet with more anonymity or one with less impunity?

Spain, though, came quite close to banning it simply because one junior judge did not understand what it was.