Updated at 4:54 p.m. ET on 2017-08-01
Indonesia on Friday blocked the popular encrypted messaging service Telegram, citing concerns that terrorists were using it to spread radical propaganda.
Indonesia’s Ministry of Communications and Informatics had requested the Internet Service Provider to block 11 domain names used by Telegram after collecting evidence that many channels on the messaging app had been promoting extremist ideologies, said Semuel A. Pangerapan, the ministry’s director-general.
Terrorist groups, he said, use Telegram to teach how to assemble bombs, carry out attacks and distribute disturbing images and radical ideas that conflict with Indonesian laws.
“This step is taken in an effort to maintain the unity of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia,” he said in a statement.
Telegram, which had more than 100 million monthly active users last year, is known to be popular among Islamic State (IS) sympathizers, officials said. The Indonesian government also says it has been grappling with a threat from IS using social media to recruit local youths for its violent cause.
The app allows users to send end-to-end encrypted messages, images and videos to thousands of members belonging to one group.
Telegram could not be immediately reached for comment.
As a result of the blocking of domain names, Indonesian users were unable to access the website version of the application on Friday, but the app could still be accessed on smartphones and other portable gadgets.
‘We burn the barn’
The decision to block the application was criticized by journalists and human rights activists, who said the decision might have been hastily implemented to counter radicalism without addressing the root of the problem.
The government should take initial steps before coming up with a drastic decision, especially when dealing with an application considered very useful by many users, social-media activist Enda Nasution said.
“There should be a notification to the users and application providers,” he told BenarNews. “The blocking should be the last step if the warning and other steps have been taken.”
Even if Telegram was an app of choice for terrorists, the government should also take advantage of the high-tech platform to spread anti-extremist information, Nasution said.
Intelligence officials can infiltrate the suspicious Telegram groups, he added.
“It will make it easier to know their plans, not by blocking it like this,” he said.
To counter the spread of radical content, Nasution said, the government can take other steps, including disseminating anti-radical videos on social media, instead of closing down the app.
Blocking Telegram spotlights the government’s laziness in containing the spread of radical content, said Iman Nugroho, division head of Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists.
“It's like trying to kill a rat that ate rice in our barn. We burn the barn,” Nugroho told BenarNews.
“This is a lazy move, when actually public gets much benefit from this application,” he said, emphasizing that millions of Indonesians were active on social media.
“Jokowi and his son also use social media,” he said, referring to Joko Widodo, the Indonesian president. “He even has created a blog video account on YouTube which is disseminated to other social media. So I think blocking is a very lazy act and does not solve the problem."
In June last year, Indonesia rejected a call by a Muslim intellectual to block Google and YouTube within the country due to content perceived as pornographic and violent.
Failure in understanding problems
Ridlwan Habib, a University of Indonesia researcher on terrorism issues, said the Islamic State (IS) could use other high-tech platforms that also offer end-to-end encryption from sender to recipient, which means that even the companies providing the service could not track down their messages.
“ISIS has many ways to communicate, through WA (WhatsApp), Line, and other social media applications,” Habib said, using the other name of IS. If those apps are blocked, intelligence monitoring would be much more difficult, he told BenarNews.
Intelligence officials in several countries, including in Britain and Australia, have complained that many popular apps have been providing militants a secure way to exchange messages.
Habib, who is also a director at the Jakarta-based think tank Indonesia Terrorism Monitoring, said the minister of information might have been misinformed.
The public might become angry at the government, a condition that would be beneficial for extremists, he said.
Blocking Telegram will not affect IS, Habib said.
“They will definitely find a new way,” he said.
This update clarifies information in the headline to indicate that the government only blocked Telegram channels.