Open source advent calendar: the messenger Telegram

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This is an advent calendar for techies. In the fully commercialized digital world, almost everything belongs to a large Internet corporation. Their software is neither open nor free. As an alternative, there is this small island of the open source world: software whose code is publicly visible and can be independently checked for possible security gaps and backdoors. Software that can be freely used, distributed and improved. Often the drive for work is simply the joy of providing something useful to society.

Short portraits of open source projects will be published on heise online from December 1st to December 24th. These are about the functions of the respective software, the pitfalls, the history, the background and the financing.

Short portraits of open source projects will be published on heise online from December 1st to December 24th. These are about the functions of the respective software, the pitfalls, the history, the background and the financing. Some projects are backed by an individual, others by a loosely organized community, a tightly managed foundation with full-time employees or a consortium. The work is done entirely on a voluntary basis, or it is financed through donations, cooperation with Internet companies, government funding or an open source business model. Regardless of whether it is a single application or a complex ecosystem, whether a PC program, app or operating system – the diversity of open source is overwhelming.

Telegram resides somewhere in the global nowhere and is financed by an IT patron who is now urgently looking for a business model. The open source project is both a private messenger and a medium for mass communication. It is both free space for opposition members in dictatorships and a barely regulated right-wing swamp. The app is loved, hated, criticized – and used by hundreds of millions.

Telegram is a messenger app for smartphones. But there are also PC programs and a web interface. Telegram FOSS is a slightly modified version in the open source app store F-Droid. In the Play Store, the app ranks in the 1,000,000,000+ category. According to Telegram founder Pawel Durow, the app Early 2021 cracked the 500 million user mark. However, the information cannot be checked. The Telegram apps are licensed under a GNUGPL v2. Telegram data runs through its own network, the autonomous system as62041.

Telegram enables private communication in the form of messages, telephony and video telephony. There are classic chats and groups with up to 200,000 members. And Telegram allows mass communication in Telegram “channels” in which the audience only reads passively. In addition, automatically communicating bots can be created. Of the Witzbot about tells jokes on call and the OpenMensaRobot displays menus in German university canteens.

When creating a profile, Telegram requires the specification and verification of a mobile phone number. By sharing the device location, profiles and local groups can be found in the area. That is why Telegram can also be used as a location-based dating app and as an option for local networking. (However, many local groups, at least in Berlin, are spammed with the same porn and drug offers.)

The reputation of the app is similar to the image of the Tor darknet: Telegram is considered a wild, lawless free space that produces both great and horrible things. This is especially true for Telegram as a medium of mass communication. Telegram is used to order drugs and other items online. In authoritarian-ruled countries, opposition members organize their communication via Telegram, for example in Iran. In western democracies, Telegram is particularly popular in the right-wing and conspiracy spectrum because the app has so far been largely free of regulation – even with anti-democratic and inhumane content. Recently, however, Telegram has sometimes deleted particularly problematic groups.

According to a communication of the Telegram founder, the app blocked a German group called “Menschenreise_diskussion” with 40,000 members in autumn 2021. In the was openly called for violence against medical staff. As on Twitter, official political communication also takes place on Telegram. The SPD runs a bot and the Federal Ministry of Health as well as the Government of Baden-Wuerttemberg a channel. And various media reflect their content in the app.

Telegram is also controversial in its capacity as a tool for private communication (see Heise Security article on Telegram as a data protection nightmare). In contrast to messengers such as WhatsApp, Signal or Threema, messages with Telegram are not end-to-end encrypted by default. That means: Telegram could look into communication content. A “secret chat” with encryption can be set for two-way communication, but this is not possible at all for group chats.

According to FAQ and, in more detail, according to one long post of the founder Durow, Telegram made a conscious decision against standard encryption. The reason: You want to enable backups and thus the continuation of a profile on another device, otherwise you would not have a chance on the messenger mass market.

The story of Telegram founder Pawel Durow provides material for a top-class political thriller: At the end of 2006, he and his brother founded the Russian Facebook clone VKontakte. With its growing popularity, the Russian state became increasingly interested in the social network. In 2014 there was an escalation. After a search of the company’s headquarters and apartment, Durov left the country in a panic.

Shortly before, he had sold the remaining shares to VKontakte. He and his brother founded the messenger app back in 2013. Telegram indicatesTo have “tried a number of locations”. In 2016 it was said that Berlin was the headquarters. The “Welt am Sonntag” took place then, however no evidence of itthat that was actually the case.

In 2015 Telegram had 60 million users, in 2018 there were 200, two years later 400 million and since Early 2021 there are more than 500 million. (If you believe your own statements).

The provider is Telegram FZ-LLC. That is located in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. An unusual place for political exile: for the organization Reporters Without Borders, the Emirates are a surveillance and censorship state. Telegram says it is satisfied with Dubai as its headquarters. But writes that you would move immediately as soon as that changes. The Telegram FZ-LLZ is so can be in the privacy policy read, a subsidiary of Telegram Group Inc. based in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven with many letterbox companies.

There does not seem to be a classic community that is actively involved in the open source project. Telegram asks for voluntary help with the Translations as well as with And Telegram writes endowed developer challenges out.

Pawel Durow acts as a patron who finances the app from his assets. Telegram said it had no income until 2020. Achieving profits was never the goal. End of 2020 Durow wrote that Telegram would finally have to make money in order to stand on its own two feet. Before that, he had failed with a large-scale monetization idea: a virtual Telegram economy was to be created based on the crypto currency Gram. Telegram raised $ 1.7 billion for the advance sale of the currency. However, the US Securities and Exchange Commission ended the project at the last second. In May 2020 Durow buried the project finally.

In October 2021, Telegram discontinued an advertising platform before. Since then, companies have been able to book internally sponsored news in channels with more than 1,000 subscribers. Durow also sold $ 1 billion worth of corporate bonds in 2021. How much interest he has to pay is not known. Durow also did not reveal who has invested in the bonds with a five-year term. A company came out of cover: Mubadala, a sovereign wealth fund of the United Arab Emirates, had invested 150 million US dollars. Half directly and half through a joint venture with a US investment company.

Due to Telegram’s corporate structure, neither ownership structures nor payment flows can be verified. When Durow announced his monetization offensive in late 2020, he wrote that Telegram would actually need “at least a few hundreds of millions of dollars a year” to operate. It is not known for sure how much Durov had in his luggage when he left Russia. In the coverage of Durow circulates an estimate going back to 2012, according to which his VKontakte shares at that time were 260 million US dollars were worth.

The news about the deal of 2021 contained an interesting side information: It was about so-called convertible bonds. If Telegram goes public, these will be converted into shares. So it is possible that the wild open source project will end up on a large exchange in the very classic way. Even in the event that Durow’s private reserves are used up, there should currently be enough money in the coffers. For the operation of what is probably the largest open source project in the world, which operates in the global and legal nowhere and is a contradicting and multifaceted all-purpose weapon: messenger, but also social network, opposition space, drug reloading point, propaganda cosmos and channel for press releases. Popular, controversial and – in two senses – damn successful.

The work on the series of articles is based in part on a “Neustart Kultur” grant from the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, awarded by VG Wort.


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