Russia: Blocking Telegram is a serious violation of freedom of expression and privacy

ARTICLE 19 strongly condemns the decision by Russia to block access to the messaging service Telegram from within the country, which violates the users’ right to freedom of expression and information and will impede the free flow of information in Russia.

Today, Friday 13 April 2018, Tagansky District Court in Moscow granted Russia’s communications regulator, Roskomnadzor, its request to block access to the service on the grounds that Telegram has not complied with a 2017 order to provide decryption keys to the Federal Security Services (FSB). The court proceeding took less than twenty minutes, with the judge permitting the immediate blocking of the service.

Telegram have publically stated that it is impossible for them to comply with such requests, due to the way the service is built which utilises end-to-end encryption. The company’s bid to challenge the illegality of the FSB’s order at the Russian Supreme Court in March 2018 was unsuccessful. They were subsequently given the deadline of 4 April 2018 to handover the ‘keys’ or face a complete block.

“This move sets a dangerous precedent for the Russian authorities to unjustly restrict access to messaging services, which do not comply with nefarious requests by the security services to provide them with unfettered access to user’s data and private communication – a clear violation of the right to privacy and freedom of expression,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

“Russia has already adopted a series of regressive laws giving wide reaching powers of surveillance to the FSB without judicial oversight – far beyond what is necessary and proportionate – in the name of countering extremism. If companies comply with such requests it would not only affect Russian users’ and those they communicate with abroad, but all users of such services as it would be impossible to companies to differentiate simply by nationality.”

The FSB’s request to Telegram is based on the 2016 “Yarovaya Package” – a series of legislative amendments justified on the grounds of “countering extremism”, but which severely undermine the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. As of July 2016, all communications providers and Internet operators are required to store information about their users’ communications activities. Operators were required to disclose means to decrypt encrypted data at security services’ request, and only use encryption methods approved by the government (effectively imposing mandatory cryptographic backdoors). From July 2018, this will be further extended to also cover all content of communications. Information must be stored for least six months, and made accessible to the security services without a court order.

Telegram, represented by legal organisation Agora, has already filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights arguing that this order violates the right to freedom of expression and privacy, guaranteed by the European Convention.

Additionally, two Russian journalists – Alexander Plyushchev and Oleg Kashin –have been independently challenging the FSB’s request to Telegram, arguing that passing the encryption keys to the FSB threatens the right of journalists to communicate with sources securely, many of whom agree to communicate only on conditions of full confidentiality and require the use of secure communication channels.

Moreover, 35 individual users of Telegram have also united to appeal against FSB request, organized through a public campaign launched by RosKomSvoboda, a Russian group working to protect against restrictions to the Internet. Their joint claim was rejected by a Moscow District Court on 22 March 2018 and Roskomsvoboda have already submitted an appeal this month.

Russia has been aggressively moving to restrict Internet freedoms – including freedom of expression, access to information and the right to privacy – since 2014. This has included pervasively expanding the grounds by which Roskomnadzor and Russia’s General Prosecutor are able to access to websites, without a court order; arrests and prosecutions of individuals for content they post or share on the Internet; and the erosion of online anonymity. For a detailed breakdown and analysis of these laws and, see ARTICLE 19’s recent joint submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review on Russia.

Background of Telegram Case

  • On 28 June 2017, Telegram Messenger LLP (Telegram) was included in the Register of Information Dissemination Organizers by decision of Roskomnadzor. This meant it was required to store a variety of metadata and all users’ correspondence on the territory of Russia and provide them to intelligence services upon request.
  • On 14 July 2017, the FSB requested Telegram to provide the keys needed to decrypt the correspondence on 6 phone numbers. No court order/judicial warrant was issued in the case; there was just a request for the decryption keys to be sent via regular e-mail to the public address of the Internet reception of the FSB ([email protected]). Telegram refused to comply with this request.
  • On 16 October 2017, a magistrate in Moscow issued a decree recognizing Telegram guilty of committing an administrative offense provided for in para. 2.1 of Article 13.31 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation (failure to provide information needed for decoding messages) and they were fined 800,000 rubles (approx. 11,000 EUR).
  • On December 12, 2017, the decision of the magistrate was confirmed by the Meshchansky District Court of Moscow and entered into force. Since that moment, the Russian authorities have a formal ground to block Telegram on the territory of Russia in accordance with Article 15.4 of the Federal Law “On Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection”.
  • On 20 March 2018, the Russian Supreme Court dismissed Telegram’s appeal, after which Roskomnadzor stated it needed to comply within 15 days (i.e. by 4 April 2018) or face being blocked.
  • On 6 April 2018, Rozkomnadzor filed a request with Moscow District Court to block Telegram. The first hearing was 12 April 2018.

Additionally, in November 2017, prominent Russian journalists Alexander Plyushchev and Oleg Kashin filed a suit with the Meshchansky Court of Moscow arguing that the existence of legislation violates their rights to respect for private and family life and the right to freedom of expression. In particular, they argued that passing the encryption keys to the FSB threatens the right of journalists to communicate with sources securely, many of whom agree to communicate only on conditions of full confidentiality and require the use of secure communication channels. The court refused to accept the case. Subsequently, Plyushchev and Kashin filed an application with the European Court in this case.

Currently, Telegram has 200 million users globally, with approximately 15 million users in Russia. The service has already been blocked in China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.