North Macedonia has threatened to shut down access to the encrypted messaging platform Telegram over a group where thousands of members were sharing nonconsensual pornography, as well as images of underage girls.
Users shared images taken without permission, as well as sometimes disseminating the victims’ personal information, including names and phone numbers.
The country’s prime minister, Zoran Zaev, warned on Thursday that the government would block Telegram unless it shuts down the group, which has 7,000 users, and other similar ones.
The chat group, known as the ‘Public Room’, has since been closed down.
In a statement posted to Facebook, Mr Zaev wrote: "If the Telegram app does not close the Public Room channel where pornographic and private content is shared by our citizens, as well as child pornography, we will also consider the option to block or restrict the use of this app in Northern Macedonia until they start collaborating with us… to help us discover the identity of those who share pictures and commit a crime.
“We don't even think about censoring communication, but this is something else and we have to protect our citizens.”
The prime minister told users “to stop what they are doing that and leave the group”, warning “at the end of the day, we will get the data, you will be charged and you will be held accountable for what you do”.
One 28-year-old victim, Anna, said she had been targeted after a photograph of her wearing a bikini was shared in the group along with her name and phone number.
“Today it is me, tomorrow you could be the target,” she warned in an Instagram post.
Police have arrested four people in connection to the Public Room online abuse case, the minister for the interior, Oliver Spasovski, said.
“We have identified more people who will be detained in the coming period, so we can reach those who created this group, and also those that are abusing personal data within the group. We are working on this intensively with the public prosecutor,” Mr Spasovski said.
The group was first detected by authorities in January 2020, who claimed to have discovered its organisers at the time, according to news website Balkan Insight.
In 2018, Apple removed Telegram from its app store because users were posting child abuse images, before reinstating it hours later with what it said were “fixes” to prevent the sharing of illegal content.
Telegram’s FAQs says the platform will not “process any requests” regarding illegal content that appears in chats or group chats, saying they are “private amongst their participants” – even though they can include thousands of users. The messaging platform’s Terms of Service states it prohibits the sharing of “illegal pornographic content on publicly viewable Telegram channels”.
The anonymity afforded by the app means there have been multiple investigations into the sharing of nonconsensual porn and child abuse images on the platform around the world, including cases in South Korea and Italy.
A number of countries have restricted or cut off access to the platform, including China, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia and Iran. Bans are often brought in on grounds of preventing terrorism, with the app being commonly used to organise anti-government protests including ones in Belarus and Hong Kong.
Russia lifted a ban on the messenger app last June, with the country’s internet regulator saying the reversal was due made possible by Telegram's "willingness" to help their efforts to counter terrorism and extremism. Authorities have struggled to enforce the ban, introduced in 2018, with Telegram moving to hide traffic behind mobile IP addresses.
Many countries have tried to restrict the viewing of online pornography, including the UK, which had intended to introduce identity checks for the viewing of explicit content in a move branded a “privacy timebomb” by campaigners at the time. The plan was dropped in October 2019.
Telegram has been contacted for comment.
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