With over half a billion active users around the globe, Telegram is one of the most used messaging services.
The application is particularly popular in India, where more than 20% of its user base resides. This includes a small subset of rather persistent pirates.
Telegram doesn’t permit copyright infringement and generally takes swift action in response to complaints. This includes the removal of channels dedicated to piracy but for some copyright holders that’s not enough; they also want to know who the copyright-infringing users are.
Rightsholders Request User Data
In India, this resulted in a legal battle against Telegram that began in 2020. The case in question was filed by Ms. Neetu Singh and KD Campus. The former is the author of various books, courses, and lectures, for which the latter runs coaching centers.
The rightsholders complained about the infringing activity and the messaging service properly addressed it. The court became involved because Telegram refused to hand over information that could identify the alleged pirates and channel operators.
In late August, the Delhi High Court sided with the rightsholders. Judge Prathiba Maninder Singh ruled that Telegram had to share all identifying information it has on file. This includes the phone numbers, IP addresses, and email addresses of uploaders and channel operators.
A new court filing reveals that after a period of quiet, Telegram has indeed complied with the order. While Telegram says that some of the requested data is no longer available, it shared everything it could, under seal.
“The said data, which is in the form of a chart, has been perused by the Court. It shows that the names of the admins, the phone numbers, and IP addresses of some of the channels as are available with Telegram have been filed,” Judge Singh writes.
The Judge says that this data may be shared confidentially with the rightsholders and should only be used for the present lawsuit. However, in a somewhat confusing statement, she stresses that the information in question can also be shared with the Government and police.
“[N]either the Plaintiffs nor their counsel shall disclose the said data to any third party, except for the purposes of the present proceedings. To this end, disclosure to the governmental authorities/police is permissible,” the order reads.
Objections Failed, Precedent Set
The original disclosure order was issued despite fierce opposition. One of Telegram’s main defenses was that the user data is stored in Singapore, which prohibits the decryption of personal information under local privacy law.
The Court dismissed this argument on the basis that the ongoing infringing activity is related to Indian works and will likely be tied to Indian users. And even if the data is stored elsewhere, it could be accessed from India.
Telegram also brought up the Indian constitution, which protects people’s privacy, as well as the right to freedom of speech and expression. That defense was unsuccessful too.
The Court’s initial order appears to have set a precedent as it’s now widely cited. Last week, the Delhi High Court ordered Telegram to hand over data in another piracy case, and the precedent was also cited in a defamation case involving YouTube.
Update: A follow-up by Durov’s Code notes that while Telegram formally complied with the court order, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all the names, phone numbers, and IP addresses of users were shared. Telegram only stores minimal information and the court also noted that some information was not available. However, we can’t independently verify what was and wasn’t shared.