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Telegram's Pavel DurocScreenshot/YouTube

(LifeSiteNews) — Federal law enforcement tried to convince a Telegram engineer to change the software so law enforcement could read the messages of its users, the company’s founder told Tucker Carlson during a recent interview.

But he also warned the bigger threat to free expression comes from Google and Apple, which effectively control the use of apps on smartphones.

Telegram is a messaging app that founder Pavel Durov created with his brother after experiencing harassment by Russian officials. Durov remains the “sole owner” of the company. Users can set up “channels” to send mass messages. This function has been useful for political movements, including democracy activists in Hong Kong.

It now has 900 million monthly users worldwide. It uses encrypted messaging which protects users’ privacy.

Born in the Soviet Union in 1984, the entrepreneur had created another social media company; it predated Facebook but was similar in its networking functions. Russian officials demanded Durov hand over private data from groups on the platform, called VK, that were organizing against Vladimir Putin and the country’s leadership.

But in some ways, he faced similar problems from American officials when he was working in San Francisco.

“We get too much attention from the FBI, the security agencies, wherever we came to the US,” Durov said. “So, to give you an example, last time I was in the US, I brought an engineer [who] is working for Telegram, and there was an attempt to secretly hire my engineer behind my back by cyber security officers or agents, whatever they are called.”

Durov said the officials “were curious to learn which open-source library site integrated through Telegram’s app,” he said.

But furthermore, “they were trying to persuade him to use certain open-source tools that he would then integrate into the Telegram code that, in my understanding, would serve as backdoors.”

“Would that allow the US government to spy on people who use Telegram?” Carlson asked.

“The US government, or maybe any other government, because a backdoor is a backdoor regardless of who is using it. That’s right,” Durov said.

“You’re confident that happened,” Carlson asked, about the recruitment efforts.

Durov said yes, because the engineer wouldn’t have a reason to make up the story and Durov shared that he himself has been targeted by the intelligence agencies for recruitment.

He told Carlson:

There is no reason for my engineer to make up the stories. Also, because I personally experienced similar pressure in the U.S whenever I would go to the US, I would have, two FBI agents greeting me at the airport, asking questions. One time I was having my breakfast at 9 a.m. and the FBI showed up at my house that I was renting. And, that was quite surprising. And I thought, you know, we’re getting too much attention here. It’s probably not the best environment to run…

… They were interested to learn more about Telegram. They knew I left Russia. They knew what we were doing, but they wanted details. And my understanding is that they wanted to establish a relationship, to, in a way control Telegram better… I understand they were doing their job. It’s just that for us, running a privacy focused social media platform, that probably wasn’t the best environment to be in. We want to be focused on what we do, not on the government relations of that sort.

“Government relations,” Carlson said, laughing.

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The company has now operated out of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates for seven years.

Durov said the company has had better experiences in the UAE. In addition to low taxes and few regulations, the “best part” is that country has not pressured the company to work with it to spy on users.

Carlson asked:

So, in the time that you’ve been here, there have been a number of wars and threats of war. Precursors to war. Have you had any pressure from the government here [in UAE)? Honestly, any pressure from the government here, to reveal a back door into Telegram or to ban anyone or to make any changes to your business?

“That’s the best part. For all the seven years we’ve been here, there’s been zero pressure coming from the UAE towards Telegram,” he said. “They’ve been very supportive, very helpful, and it’s a big contrast [to] whatever we’ve experienced before.”

He said the company has been “receiving a lot of requests” to work with governments. When there is clearly something like “terrorist activity,” the company does assist. In other cases where it was legitimate free speech, Telegram ignores them.

Asked to give an example of “censorship” and privacy violations, Durov related how his company received conflicting letters from American congressional leaders related to the investigation into the violence at the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Democrats in Congress,”requested that we would share all the data we had in relation to what they called this uprising. And we checked it with our lawyers, and they said, you better ignore it,” Durov recalled. “But the letter seemed very serious. And, the letter said, ‘if you fail to comply with this request, you will be in violation [of], you know, the US Constitution or something.”

He said two weeks later Republican leaders sent the company a letter telling the company that complying with the request for data would also violate the US Constitution.

“So, we got two letters that said, whatever we do, we’d be violating the US Constitution,” he said.

Biggest censorship threat is from Google, Apple

Even after going through numerous requests to hand over data or install spying software on Telegram, Durov said the biggest threat to free speech is not even from governments, but from Big Tech platforms Google and Apple.

“I would say the largest pressure [on] Telegram is not coming from governments. It’s coming from Apple and Google,” Durov said. “So, when it comes to freedom of speech, those two platforms, they could basically censor whatever is you can access on your smartphone.”

The companies can remove Telegram from the app stores, which would hurt the company.

“Obviously a big chunk of the world’s population would lose access to a valuable tool,” he said.

The “application of the rules” seems political at times, Durov said. The “rules themselves” are “pretty general,” such as no “violence” or “publicly available child abuse materials,” he said. “It’s hard to disagree with that.”

But Telegram and the Big Tech platforms clash over the “interpretation” of the rules.

“And sometimes they do agree, to their credit,” he said.

However, Durov said he is “hopeful” that past censorship of political movements is truly in the past, saying he does not ” necessarily believe that things are going to get worse.”

He contrasted the platform’s neutral position when it comes to the politics of its users with companies such as Facebook.

“I think Facebook in particular has a lot of reasons apart from being based in the US for doing what they’re doing. I think every app and platform plays its own role,” he said. “You know, we believe that humanity does need a neutral platform like Telegram that will be respectful to people’s privacy and freedoms.”

Durov affirmed he does not want to get involved in any specific political side, when Carlson asked if he wanted to be a “player in world politics.”

He still avoids the United States due to his past experiences with law enforcement.

Company would not take down content skeptical of COVID restrictions

While other platforms, including YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, would remove or throttle content critical of COVID measures (such as forced masking and COVID jabs), Durov said Telegram did not.

He told Carlson:

We’re a neutral platform. We were helping governments to spread their message about the lockdowns and masks and vaccines. We got dozens of governments who we really [helped with], you know, some of their information, but we also didn’t want to restrict the voices that were critical of all those measures. We thought it made sense for… opposing views to collide and hopefully, you know, see some truth come out of those debates. And of course, we got criticized for that. But, looking back, I think it was the right strategy.

“During the pandemic, we I think were one of the few or maybe the only major social media platform that didn’t, take down accounts or that were skeptical, in relation to some of these measures,” he said.

Durov also said he thinks Elon Musk is doing a good job running X (formerly known as Twitter).

“What X is trying to do is in line [with] what we are building: innovation, trying different things, trying to give power to the creators, trying to get the ecosystem economy going,” he said.

“Those are all exciting things. And I think we need more companies like that,” he said.

“I don’t know if it’s good for humanity that Elon is spending so much time on Twitter making it better, but it’s definitely good for the social media industry.”

Carlson ended by telling Durov he is “rooting” for the company. Carlson’s show has since opened its own Telegram channel.

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