- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2017

A court in Moscow has fined smartphone messaging app Telegram for refusing to give Russian authorities the decryption keys needed to decipher communications between customers.

The Meshchansky Court handed down a 800,000 ruble (roughly $14,000) fine on Monday after the company failed to comply with a government order seeking the digital keys required to decrypt the messages of a half-dozen Telegram customers – a fraction of a percentage of the roughly 10 million Russians currently using the encrypted messaging app to privately communicate, according to the company’s founder, self-exiled Russian internet tycoon Pavel Durov.

The fine is a mere slap on the wrist for Mr. Durov, a multi-millionaire who first made bank founding VK, Russia’s largest social networking service, but risks opening the door for Moscow to outright ban Telegram, potentially once and for all reining in the platform following months of warnings from federal regulators.

The penalty centers around a request made July 12 by the FSB, Russia’s counter-intelligence agency, seeking information needed to decrypt messages from six Telegram accounts, according to multiple news reports. The FSB notified Telegram on Aug. 31 that it planned to penalize the company unless it complied, and on Sept. 14 it initiated those proceedings, the reports said.

Telegram was fined under part 2.1 of Article 13.31 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, failure to provide law enforcement information for decoding messages, and has 10 days to appeal.

Roskomnadzor, Russia’s government media watchdog, may compel Telegram to surrender its decryption keys if the ruling is upheld on appeal, the Meduza news site reported.

“As far as I know, the issue is not on the agenda for now,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said when asked Monday about the possibility of blocking Telegram. “There is a court decision, which I am not in the position to comment on. In this particular case no discussions about blocking the messenger are on at the moment,” he said.

In a post on VK, the social network Mr. Durov launched in 2006, he called the surveillance request unconstitutional and “not technically feasible.”

“The desire of the FSB to gain access to personal correspondence is an attempt to expand its influence at the expense of the constitutional right of citizens,” Mr. Durov wrote Monday. “Today’s decision of the Meshchansky Court can be appealed until the claim of the FSB is considered by a judge familiar with the basic law of Russia - its Constitution,” he wrote, as loosely translated.

Roskomnadzor threatened to ban Telegram in June when the company refused but eventually complied with a newly enacted federal law requiring “information distributors” to register with the government. Mr. Durov has previously been critical of an additional package of federal legislation, the so-called ‘Yarovaya laws’ set to take effect in 2018 because it requires registered information distributors to provide the Russian government with warrantless access to users’ messages.

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