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from ‘Russian Facebook’ to compete with WhatsApp

Telegram is one of the applications that has best entered 2021. Any regular user will have noticed by their notifications in recent months how many relatives and distant contacts were coming to the chat, in a transfusion from WhatsApp that will have to be seen to what extent if it is durable or not, but that it is there.

Specifically, the Russian application has exceeded 500 million users Driven in part by the controversy over changes to WhatsApp conditions, which nonetheless did not affect EU citizens by the GDPR.

However, it is the Russian company itself that seems to want to get out of this comparison. So far this year it has launched novelties important like voice chats (the umpteenth copy of the Clubhouse model that has been seen so much) and, by May, it wants to introduce the possibility of broadcasting live video on its channels, both in streaming and in conference.

Video conferencing and direct payments to part with WhatsApp

“Shared screen, encryption, noise cancellation, desktop and tablet support, everything you can expect from a modern video conferencing tool, but with a user interface, speed and encryption at the level of Telegram”, defended its founder, Pavel Durov .

But perhaps the biggest touchstone is the addition of the ability to receive and send money through the app, something that until now WhatsApp had explored very timidly worldwide with some functionalities in India (where Facebook-owned chat is almost a religion) and Brazil, and in the profiles for companies in the rest of the world.

However, Telegram’s bet is on the path of expanding these payments to the whole world, integrating the APIs of services such as Stripe and, as they have assured, without charging commissions or keeping payment data or credit cards.

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Then, How does Telegram plan to make money? Since its launch in 2013, Telegram has been a software that has endured losses. At present, it continues to be nurtured by issuing debt bonds, the last of them, worth 750 million dollars and answered by important Russian and international companies.

This year this may start to change. In one of its latest updates Telegram announced that this year it will begin to explore monetization in various ways: the first, creating a tool for the dissemination of advertising on its channels; the second, the inclusion of extra services for premium users.

All existing features will remain free, said Durov, who has become one of WhatsApp’s biggest critics. In addition, he added that Telegram agrees not to introduce ads in private one-to-one chats or group chats.

From creating the ‘Russian Facebook’ to Telegram, the story of the Durov brothers

Pavel Durov TelegramPavel Durov, founder of Telegram. Via Tech Crunch

But on its way to get here Telegram has gone through several stages to become the first Russian digital solution that has successfully transcended the country’s borders. A path in which the company has shielded itself in its supposedly greater privacy than WhatsApp, something that cannot be celebrated so emphatically, at least without a specific configuration.

If Telegram has been able to live since 2013 without generating income, it is -in addition to investments and financing rounds- for the huge amount of money previously generated by its founders.

Pavel Durov has assured on several occasions that they will not sell the application, something that he criticizes about WhatsApp, and in part it is because of this money that he continues to have in his wallet.

In the early 2000s, when Facebook was getting popular, Pavel and his brother Nikolai were interested in the idea of ​​replicating that model. The Durovs, despite being born in Saint Petersburg, were trained and raised in Turin, where their father worked as a doctor in Philology, the same career that Pavel would study, while Nikolai would study mathematics and programming.

The Durovs founded VKontakte before Telegram, the Russian social network that they ended up selling under alleged government pressure

The tandem developed after their return to Russia VK (formerly VKontakte), a platform similar to Facebook that since its launch in 2006 gained popularity in the country and those of the former Soviet influence.

An app ‘made in Russia’ persecuted by Russia

Old Vkontakte logo

However, as popularity grew and the company’s valuation soared, in 2014 the brothers they sold the company, although always under the suspicion that this transaction was promoted from the upper echelons of Moscow. As Techcrunch reported then, Durov had to sell his 12% stake to Ivan Tavrin, the CEO of major Russian mobile operator Megafon. The second largest shareholder in the telco is, in turn, Alisher Usmanov, one of the most powerful oligarchs in Russia, who apparently had been pushing for a long time to take over VK after several controversies around censorship and criticism of him. Kremlin and Vladimir Putin.

Pavel, with a much more prominent role than his technical brother, then published on his own profile on the social network:

Judging by the news, as a result of my public refusal last week, today I was fired from the post of CEO of VKontakte. Interestingly, the shareholders did not have the courage to do it well, and I find out about my mysterious dismissal from the press… Thus, today VKontakte comes under the full control of Igor Sechin and Alisher Usmanov. Something similar was inevitable, but part of what has been done has no turning back.

Pavel Durov, founder of Telegram

According to Pavel, his departure was prompted by refusing to provide VK users’ data to the Russian government and close a group of corruption advocate and opposition leader Alexei Navalny -poisoned last year- that worked on the social network.

The Durovs then left Russia to settle in Germany. But by then, they had already founded Telegram in 2013, this time registered in the United States.

Doubts about your privacy and your controversies

However, despite the fact that Durov has always done to present its application as much more secure than WhatsApp, the truth is that it continues to present loopholes.

While the Facebook-owned app adopted Signal encryption to protect its users’ conversations end-to-end, on Telegram they have opted for their own encryption model. The main asterisk that has been attributed to it is that by default – except in private conversations, not to be confused with one-to-one conversations – this encryption must be activated since it is not by default.

Telegram has made progress towards privacy in other aspects such as with the installation of message deletion functions in a much more secure way, or features to protect screenshots.

Their functions on horseback of the chat and the social network have also made them the perfect tool for some controversial content. In the United States, the far-right chats it hosts have been investigated. While in Spain the VOX party has campaigned among its followers to move to the platform by spreading the erroneous message that WhatsApp was directly censoring them.

Telegram also has a huge problem of spreading pornography, with users freely sharing non-consensual images on the platform.

To try to correct this, Telegram has already eliminated some public group channels, but its own conditions make this work of containment in private chats much more complicated. A threat that comes from the hand of its unstoppable growth, paradoxically, driven by the flight of many WhatsApp users due to these problems that Telegram is now also having.

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