Russian court slams Meta as ‘extremist organization’, excludes WhatsApp – National

A Moscow court ruled on Monday that Meta was guilty of “extremist activity”, but the decision will not affect its messaging service WhatsApp, focusing on the US company’s already banned social networks Facebook and Instagram.

Meta did not respond to requests for comment after Moscow’s Tverskoi District Court said in a press release that it had upheld a lawsuit filed by state prosecutors to ban the activities of the company on Russian territory.

Meta’s lawyer, Victoria Shagina, previously told the court that the company does not engage in extremist activities and is against Russophobia, the Interfax news agency reported.

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It was unclear whether Meta would appeal the ban on Facebook and Instagram activities in Russia “on the grounds of carrying out extremist activities”, a ban, cited by TASS, according to Judge Olga Solopova, would be implemented immediately .

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In the past, Russia has labeled groups such as the Taliban and Islamic State as “extremists”, but later broadened that to include Jehovah’s Witnesses and jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Facebook had 7.5 million users in Russia last year and WhatsApp had 67 million, according to estimates by researcher Insider Intelligence, while Instagram said its ban would affect 80 million users in Russia.

The implications of the ruling remain unclear as Facebook and Instagram are already banned in Russia and the court said WhatsApp would not be affected by its decision.

“The decision does not apply to the activities of Meta’s WhatsApp messenger, due to its lack of functionality for the public dissemination of information,” the court said.

Russia initially banned Facebook for restricting access to Russian media while Instagram was blocked after Meta said it would allow social media users in Ukraine to post messages calling for violence against the Russian president Vladimir Putin and the troops that Moscow sent to Ukraine on February 24.

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Russia calls the conflict a “special military operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from people it describes as dangerous nationalists.

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Video shows long queues at the Apple Store in Moscow after the company announced a pause in operations in Russia

Video shows long queues at the Apple Store in Moscow after the company announced a pause in operations in Russia – March 11, 2022

Meta has since scaled back its guidelines to ban calls for the death of a head of state and said its guidelines should never be interpreted as condoning violence against Russians in general.

But the perceived threat to its citizens angered Russian authorities and led to the criminal case against Meta.

It was not immediately clear how the WhatsApp messaging service could continue to operate, as the court halted Meta’s business operations.

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Monday’s mobile internet traffic analysis showed that Telegram, long popular in Russia, overtook WhatsApp to become the country’s most used messaging tool in recent weeks.

The prosecution sought to allay fears that people who find ways to circumvent bans on Meta’s services could face criminal charges.

“Individuals will not be prosecuted simply for using Meta’s services,” TASS said, citing the prosecutor, in court.

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But human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov said neither the court nor the prosecutor could guarantee the safety of Facebook or Instagram users, warning that any public display of meta symbols – on websites, store entrances, on business cards – could result in administrative fees and more. 15 days in jail.

“Buying social media ads or trading Meta shares can be considered fundraising for extremism – it’s a criminal offence,” he wrote on Telegram.

WhatsApp may have been left alone due to its daily use by Russians and by government agencies and state-owned companies for customer support, said Sarkis Darbinyan, head of the legal department at digital rights group Roskomsvoboda. Another reason is probably to avoid any backlash.

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“The government is trying not to close everything all at once, but gradually, so that people slowly get used to it,” he told Reuters, pointing to Instagram’s “unpopular” shutdown.

“We assume that services like WhatsApp could be blocked at any time,” Darbinyan added.

The Russian military operation in Ukraine has fueled a simmering dispute between foreign digital platforms and Moscow.

Access to Twitter has also been restricted, and on Friday communications regulator Roskomnadzor demanded that Alphabet Inc’s Google stop broadcasting what it calls threats against Russian citizens on YouTube.

Anton Gorelkin, a member of the State Duma Committee on Information and Communications who has criticized foreign companies, while advocating domestic alternatives, said the Russian market could be opened again to Meta, but only to Moscow conditions.

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“This is an immediate end to the blocking of Russian media, a return to the policy of neutrality and strict moderation of fakes and anti-Russian comments,” Gorelkin said on Telegram.

Another condition, Gorelkin said, was that Meta comply with a law requiring foreign companies with more than 500,000 daily users to open representative offices in Russia.

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Susan Fenton, Jonathan Oatis, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Alexander Smith)

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