Brazil's high court Justice Alexandre de Moraes.
Brazil's high court Justice Alexandre de Moraes. Photo: Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil

Risky, Brazil's high court bet on blocking Telegram was remarkably successful

With the ultra-partisan networks (Gab, Gettr) failing, Telegram became the lifeline of the noisiest and most extremist figures in national politics, and a source of concern for the country's Electoral Justice for the next presidential elections in October.

Ler em português

In September last year, when Brazil‘s Superior Electoral Court (TSE, in the acronym in Portuguese) announced memoranda of understanding with digital platforms to fight disinformation in this year’s October elections, one absence was noticed: Telegram.

It was not the first time that the Russian-origin app, now based in the United Arab Emirates, completely ignored a Brazilian authority. For many, Telegram is indeed a no man’s land and many actors who, in past elections, abused other digital platforms, such as WhatsApp, perceived that.

With the ultra-partisan networks (Gab, Gettr) failing, Telegram became the lifeline of the digital strategy of the noisiest and most extremist cadres in national politics, and also a source of concern for the Brazilian Electoral Justice.

READ ALSO: The case of WhatsApp and the small victory of a big tech when it comes to privacy

This scenario turned upside down last weekend. On Friday (18), a decision by Brazil‘s high court Justice Alexandre de Moraes – also the next president of the TSE –, determined the blocking of Telegram in Brazilian territory and the removal of the app from Apple’s and Google’s app stores for not fully complying with the order to block channels of the fugitive blogger and Bolsonaro’s supporter Allan dos Santos.

The total blocking of an application in the national territory is not usual. In fact, it is pretty controversial among jurists and digital law experts. Even if valid, it is seen as an extreme measure and, as such, risky — it can work very well, but it can go very wrong.
Some say that Alexandre de Moraes was testing Telegram, a blink-first kind of bet.

Whatever the motivation, Minister Moraes emerged victorious from the imbroglio — a victory as flawless as it was improbable, considering Telegram’s track record in Brazil.

READ ALSO: New privacy laws are having a big impact on how companies market to their customers

With a lame excuse, on Saturday (19), the CEO at Telegram, Pavel Durov, acknowledged the negligence towards the Brazilian Justice until then, claiming that the STF was sending its orders to an old email address, that no one was looking. “The email didn’t arrive” is far from an original excuse, but Durov gave it to Brazil‘s supreme court.

Believe it or not, the fact is that Telegram finally stopped ignoring the Brazilian authorities and complied with the imposed determinations, albeit partially. Therefore, on the same day, a new decision by Alexandre de Moraes demanded full compliance within 24 hours. At this point, the block was already in effect at some regional providers and scheduled in at least one major mobile operator to go into effect this Monday (21).

At 2:45 pm on Sunday (20), with two hours to go before the deadline given by the STF, Telegram fulfilled the order:

1) Appointed a representative in Brazil;

2) Informed new mechanisms to fight the spread of fake news on the platform, such as the creation of a monitoring system for the 100 most popular channels in the country (responsible for 95% of messages viewed on public channels), as well as the monitoring of the news and other social networks in matters that concern the company, in addition to partnerships with Brazilian fact-checking agencies;

3) Blocked the channel of the public servant and Bolsonaro’s supporter Claudio Lessa;

4) And deleted old material from Bolsonaro’s channel, with links to a secret Federal Police investigation regarding the hacker attack suffered by the TSE in 2018.

The response caused Justice Moraes to suspend the decision to block Telegram in Brazil.

READ ALSO: Facebook/Meta is using small businesses to clean up its act

It was a total victory: the STF got Telegram’s attention and commitments, turning the app into an ally for the October elections, and the block didn’t even come into effect for most users. None of this guarantees that the Brazilan elections will be clean in the digital environment, but Telegram’s collaboration eliminates a broad avenue through which disinformation could run rampant.

In an interview with radio network Jovem Pan this Monday (21), President Jair Bolsonaro claimed that Alexandre de Moraes, whom he called a “scoundrel” in September 2021, would be in a “relentless pursuit” against him.

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes