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Telegram messaging app acts to block Islamic State sites

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A resident painting over an ISIS flag in Solo, Central Java.

[FRANKFURT] Telegram, a mobile messaging service that's been adopted as a promotional and recruitment platform by Islamic State, said it was taking action to block the channels being used by the group.

Berlin-based Telegram, created two years ago by the exiled founder of Russia's most popular social network site, has caught on in many corners of the globe as an ultra-secure way to quickly upload and share videos, texts and voice messages. It says it has 60 million active users.

Two months ago, a new public broadcast feature of Telegram became the preferred method for Islamic State to broadcast news and share videos of military victories or sermons, according to security researchers.

The group used Telegram to claim responsibility for the Paris attacks, which left 129 people dead, and the bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt last month, which killed 224.

In a statement published on its site Wednesday, Telegram said it has been able to identify and block 78 ISIS-related broadcast channels in 12 languages on its site. "We were disturbed to learn that Telegram's public channels were being used by ISIS to spread their propaganda," it said.

The company's statement appeared an hour after Reuters published a piece detailing Islamic State's use of Telegram.

Alex Kassirer, a counter-terrorism analyst with the New York-based private intelligence firm Flashpoint, said that IS had begun using Telegram broadcast channels to send press releases aimed at recruiting and inspiring followers.

Some of the dozens of channels set up had 10,000 followers or more, said Rita Katz, director of Bethesda, Maryland-based extremist monitoring service SITE Intelligence Group. On Wednesday afternoon some of those channels could not be accessed, and a message was displayed saying they were no longer available.

Unlike Twitter, which has shut down thousands of accounts tied to Islamic State for violating company rules, until Wednesday Telegram had appeared to let the jihadists operate without fear of being turned off or traced, Ms Katz said.

Telegram, which did not respond to requests for comment, explicitly says on its site that it makes efforts to block Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS.

The company statement stressed that shutting down ISIS channels on the site was not taken to restrict free speech, which it encourages. "While we do block terrorist (e.g. ISIS-related) bots and channels, we will not block anybody who peacefully expresses alternative opinions," Telegram said of its actions.

TURBULENT HISTORY

Telegram was set up by the two brothers who founded VKontakte, a Russian social networking site inspired by Facebook that counts more than 100 million active users.

Pavel Durov, 31, the frontman, and his brother Nicolay, 34, the technical talent, lost control of VKontakte to businessmen with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2014, after battling the government over demands that it block Russian opposition leaders and turn over information about Ukrainian protesters.

The brothers left Russia and moved to Berlin to continue running Telegram, which they fund themselves. The main appeal of Telegram is that it allows users to send strongly encrypted messages, for free, to any number of a user's phones, tablets or computers.

The Durov brothers are inspired by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's battle against widespread Internet surveillance and their own run-ins with Russian authorities, Pavel Durov said in an interview with the website Mashable earlier this year.

REUTERS