Most people have heard of Telegram as a secure chatting app that is popular among journalists, whistleblowers and others who need to exchange confidential information. It has, however, also become the go-to place to access pirated content, upstaging popular OTT streaming platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.
How does it work?
Like WhatsApp, Telegram is an end-to-end encrypted messaging app. But that’s where the similarities end. Telegram also works like a cloud space that allows you to send, receive and store huge files. It also allows you to make groups and channels in which you can share files as big as 1.5 GB and can add up to 2,00,000 participants — in a single group. It is through these channels and groups that people have been sharing pirated content with each other worldwide.
All you need to do is search the name of the movie or show that you want to watch and you’ll come across groups where someone would have shared links to it.
Film student Architaa Chawla has a subscription to most of the major OTT platforms — Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hotstar, Alt Balaji, Zee 5. But when she wanted to watch the show JL50, starring Abhay Deol, she had to go to yet another platform, Sony LIV.
She wasn’t going to pay for another subscription. “I didn’t want to subscribe to LIV for just one show, so I just searched for it on Telegram and I found all four episodes of it beautifully stitched together in a single long video in wonderful quality,” she tells ThePrint.
Telegram users told ThePrint that newly released content is almost instantly available to download. Sometimes, movies reach the platform even before they hit the theatres. It also allows users to catch movies and shows much before they debut in India.
“Shows like Killing Eve, The Good Place, Rick and Morty arrive late in India, but I watched them well in advance, thanks to Telegram,” says filmmaker Akanksha Dhakrey who didn’t have to wait for the release dates in India.
Another sitcom popular among Indians, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, is expected to stream on Indian Netflix almost a year from its original airing date in the US. However, fans on Telegram can find and download 13 episodes of the seventh and latest season, which are still unavailable on Netflix India.
What makes these Telegrams groups even more appealing is the fact that even with the tens of thousands of members, there are no spammers, says a 24-year-old Delhi-based freelancer who didn’t wish to be named. “There’s only and only content posted on these groups that people come to download, watch and leave. There’s a discipline, in that even with more than 10,000-20,000 people in a single group, nobody is inclined to send some random message, ever.”
Where Netflix, Torrents lose out
Telegram has since evolved into more than just an alternative to the streaming platforms. Chawla explains you can find almost any content under the sun — classics unavailable on any mainstream platform (even torrents, a file distribution platform), foreign language films in high quality and with good subtitles, as well as lesser-known critically acclaimed films that win big at festivals.
All of this has helped her develop and keep up her taste for world cinema. “What I don’t find anywhere, I find here. For example, I watched this critically acclaimed, Oscar-nominated documentary, For Sama on the platform, and I had failed to find it even on torrents.”
Dhakrey says he has been able to watch on Telegram otherwise unavailable films.
“I have watch shows like Hulu’s period comedy-drama ‘The Great’ or movies like Knives Out (now available on Airtel XStream), The Professional (1994), The King Of Staten Island (2020) and Booksmart (2019), without any hassle. Some of them are just not available in India … so for a filmmaker like me, it’s a blessing in disguise as I am able to watch everything I want to watch and not be limited to its availability in the country.”
For a decade now, torrents have been the go-to web location for downloading content unavailable in one’s region, but it comes with its own problems, primarily the amount of data and time it takes to download a movie or a show. Telegram has eclipsed this by providing faster options to access content, making it less cumbersome.
“I can use torrents only on my laptop and for some reason, it uses a lot of data; this is not the case with Telegram, where I can watch shows instantly on my phone,” the Delhi-based freelancer says.
Other users have noted how torrents open users up to the risk of picking up malware, and streaming sites like F Movies almost always serve pornographic ads. In contrast, Chawla says her Telegram experience has been seamless, with access to clean, high quality content to boot.
Not all is sunny on Telegram
There is a flip side though; Telegram also has its fair share of objectionable content available. Since one can share big files and make private groups so easily, videos of rape and child porn are also just as easily available, raising alarm bells.
Users can report content by emailing Telegram (firstname.lastname@example.org), but the platform is clear that it won’t regularise private content, according to its FAQ section. Telegram also doesn’t clearly state if it proactively takes down problematic content from its cloud instead of only relying on user feedback.
ThePrint reached Telegram for a comment on Twitter, but did not receive a response till the time of publishing this report.
Then there are copyright issues since content is pirated. A lot of times, the files disappear because they’ve been taken down. For example, when ThePrint looked for For Sama on the app, it didn’t get any credible hits. “The group doesn’t exist anymore, it must’ve been taken down,” Chawla says.
Then there’s the ethical issue of accessing pirated content. Piracy is estimated to cost the OTT industry in India almost USD 3.08 billion by 2022.
For users like Chawla, this is a two-sided coin.
“Many celebrities, films became popular because people accessed pirated versions of their work. Take Anurag Kashyap, for example.”
She insists that while it may hurt creators monetarily on the face of it, several worldwide celebrities wouldn’t have acquired such massive star status had people across the globe not been able to access their content in affordable ways.