A close up of the screen of a mobile phone showing messaging apps, including Whatsapp, Signal and Telegram

Oups! French Government Mistakenly Blocks Telegram Access for Millions

Picture of Dan York
Director, Internet Technology, Internet Society
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May 19, 2023

On the morning of 13 May 2023, people across France woke up to discover that the Telegram messaging service was not working in the way that it usually did. When using Telegram, it is a common practice to share “t.me” URLs that can link to a user’s account, to a channel, or to specific pieces of content in a channel. It’s an easy way to share a link with other people.

However, on this particular Saturday morning, when users clicked on a t.me URL to connect to another user, they instead received a page from the French Ministry of the Interior indicating that the site was blocked because it contained child pornography:

There was great confusion on social media, and concern as the French government had just proposed a bill that week around large-scale blocking of websites.

Here at Pulse, we started to wonder if this was a new government-mandated “service blocking” event that we should add to our Internet shutdown tracker.

However, a few hours later, services returned to normal and links were all working again. According to an article in Le Monde, the police sent a blocking request to French Internet Service Providers (ISPs). However, the blocking request was for all “t.me” links, rather than for specific links that may have contained content the police classified as illegal. After this was pointed out, the police contacted ISPs to lift the ban.

Stéphane Bortzmeyer wrote up an analysis (in French, naturally) that shows what was happening during the blockage. As he points out, the blockage was happening through the domain name system (DNS). The French ISPs were instructed to redirect DNS queries for “t.me” to the IP address of a web server operated by the Ministry of the Interior that displayed the warning shown above.

As Bortzmeyer also notes, this page from the French Ministry of the Interior also contained Javascript tracking code that appeared to send information about every visitor to some logging service with a pornography tag. So now, an undisclosed number of regular Telegram users (thousands? millions?) in France now may have their information logged in a French government database as associated with child pornography! This is not good for those users, nor is it good for the French government as they have just polluted their database with bogus data that will make it harder to track down actual suspected criminals.

All in all, this is a good example of what not to do, and a cautionary tale for all other governments seeking to regulate specific sites. Using the sledgehammer technique of blocking entire domains – particularly for messaging services – will cause so many unintended consequences.

Photo by Dimitri Karastelev on Unsplash