MOSCOW (Reuters) - A Russian court on Friday ordered that access to the Telegram messenger service be blocked in Russia, heralding possible communication disruption for millions of users in the latest clash between global technology firms and Russian authorities.
The decision came a week after state communication watchdog, Roskomnadzor, filed a lawsuit to limit access to Telegram following the company’s repeated refusal to give Russian state security services access to its users’ secret messages.
As part of its services, Telegram allows its more than 200 million global users, including senior Russian government officials, to communicate via encrypted messages which cannot be read by third parties.
But Russia’s FSB Federal Security service has said it needs access to some of those messages for its work that includes guarding against terrorist attacks. Telegram has refused to comply with the demands, citing respect for user privacy.
“The court decided to meet the requirements of Roskomnadzor, impose restrictions on access to Telegram messenger and stop providing technical conditions for the exchange of messages,” the TASS news agency quoted judge Yulia Smolina as saying.
Roskomnadzor head Alexander Zharov said the ban would be enforced soon but would not say exactly when, TASS reported. Roskomnadzor later added Telegram to its register of banned websites, paving the way for it to be blocked.
Russia’s top network providers, Megafon and MTS, declined to comment on the ban. Competitor Beeline said it would “act within the framework of the law.”
Telegram founder and CEO, Pavel Durov, said the app will use built-in systems to circumnavigate the ban but could not guarantee 100 percent access without the use of a virtual private network, or VPN.
Pavel Chikov, a lawyer representing Telegram, said the court decision was warning to global technology firms of the dangers of operating in Russia.
“They have demonstrated again and again that the court system is devoted to serving the interests of the authorities. They no longer even care about basic external appearances,” he said on his Telegram channel.
Fallout from the court decision will also be closely watched by investors as Telegram is undertaking the world’s biggest initial coin offering - a private sale of tokens which can be traded as an alternative currency, similar to Bitcoin or Ethereum.
The company has so far raised $1.7 billion in pre-sales via the offering, according to media reports.
Ranked as the world’s ninth most popular mobile messaging app, Telegram is widely used in countries across the former Soviet Union and Middle East.
As well as being popular with journalists and members of Russia’s political opposition, Telegram is also used by the Kremlin to communicate with reporters and arrange regular conference calls with President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call on Friday, organized using Telegram, that his office would soon move to another messaging service.
“Limiting access was not the goal in and of itself,” he said. “There is the legal position, which requires the provision of data to certain Russian state bodies. Meetings this condition would have allowed for a consensus. But unfortunately this consensus was not reached.”
Telegram is the second global network to be blocked in Russia after LinkedIn was banned in 2016 for failing to comply with a law that requires companies holding Russian citizens’ data to store it on servers on Russian soil.
Other international technology companies, such as Facebook (FB.O) and Alphabet Inc’s Google GOOG.L, have also clashed recently with Russian regulators.
Roskomnadzor asked Facebook earlier this week about the steps it was taking to meet its requirements under the data law and has said it will carry out an audit of Facebook’s compliance with Russian legislation in the second half of 2018.
Durov himself left Russia in 2014 after selling the country’s biggest social media network, VK, to a businessman close to the Kremlin after coming under pressure from Russian authorities.
Russian users will still be able to access Telegram’s services by using VPNs, which allow people to bypass internet restrictions imposed by authorities.
When Reuters asked a person in the Russian government how they would operate without access to Telegram, the person, who asked not be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue, replied by sending a screenshot of his mobile phone with an open VPN app.
Russia’s deputy communications minister, Alexei Volin, said VPNs and other ways of circumnavigating the ban meant Telegram users would not be greatly inconvenienced.
“Many Telegram users have already adopted different messengers, and those who want to stay with this product know a lot of ways to get round the ban and continue using the services they are used to,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.
Additional reporting by Anastasia Teterevleva, Maria Kiselyova and Denis Pinchuk in Moscow, Eric Auchard in London; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg