Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes ordered Telegram’s suspension on Friday, citing the company’s persistent refusal to comply with judicial requests to freeze accounts propagating disinformation or comply with the country’s laws.
Telegram founder and CEO Pavel Durov responded by apologising for the company’s “negligence” and asking the court to postpone its decision for a few days while it worked to enhance compliance.
As larger tech companies like Meta (FB.O), which owns messaging app WhatsApp, Alphabet Inc’s (GOOGL.O) Google, and Twitter (TWTR.N) have complied with Supreme Court orders to remove offending accounts for allegedly spreading disinformation, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters have increasingly relied on Telegram as a means of mass communication.
Moraes’ ruling, which is certain to fuel debate about free speech in Brazil’s politically split society, is the latest chapter in the crusading justice’s fight against Bolsonaro and his friends.
Moraes has been in charge of a succession of Supreme Court investigations investigating Bolsonaro and his followers for spreading fake news, investigations that have outraged many on the right and prompted concerns about judicial overreach.
Bolsonaro said the court’s judgement was “inadmissible” while speaking at a religious gathering un the western state of Acre.
Telegram had frequently neglected to block infringing accounts and ignored the court’s decisions, according to Moraes’ ruling.
“We absolutely could have done a better job,” said Durov, Telegram’s creator, blaming his company’s inadequacies on email issues. Durov urged the court to postpone its decision on his personal Telegram account.
“I am confident that if a trustworthy route of communication is created, we will be able to fulfil takedown requests for public channels that are illegal in Brazil quickly and efficiently,” he wrote.
Moraes granted Wilson Diniz Wellisch, the head of telecoms regulator Anatel, 24 hours to enforce the suspension, which will last until Telegram complies with outstanding judicial orders, pays a series of fines, and appears in court with a national representative.
“The judicial ruling has been forwarded to the businesses working in the regulated sector,” Anatel added.
Moraes’ decision was met with immediate resistance from the government.
Justice Minister Anderson Torres slammed Moraes’ “monocratic” ruling on Twitter, saying it had “harmed millions of Brazilians.” Torres said he has given his ministry instructions to “research a solution to restore the people’s right to use any social network they want.”
Telegram has been popular among far-right groups all across the world.
The software has been blamed for creating an increasingly aggressive subculture of anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists who swap knowledge about alleged dangers and organise protests that have devolved into violence in Germany, where local media reported that authorities blocked 64 Telegram channels in February.
Bolsonaro accused Brazil’s top election authority of “cowardice” in mulling a ban on the messaging app in January, citing concerns that it may be used to propagate “false news.”