Russian court finds Meta guilty of “extremist activity”, but won’t ban Whatsapp

A judge in a Moscow court said on Monday that Instagram and Facebook were guilty of “extremist” activity, solidifying a ban on both platforms that went into effect earlier this month, reportedReuters. But the court also spared Whatsapp — one of Meta’s core products and one of the most popular messaging platforms in Russia — from the ban. Russian authorities decided to open a criminal case against Meta after Facebook’s decision to temporarily allow for calls of violence in Ukraine and select other countries. The outcome of that case was determined today in court.

Many Russia experts believe that the court chose not to include Whatsapp in the ban due to its ubiquitous status in the nation. Roughly 80 percent of Russians over the age of 14 use Whatsapp to communicate, according to a 2021 survey from Deloitte. Ironically, the case against Meta led to Whatsapp losing its status as the most popular messenger in Russia. Telegram, which millions of Russians downloaded in recent weeks due to uncertainty over Whatsapp's fate, is now the most popular messaging app in Russia, mobile operator Megafon toldReuters today.

Under the judge’s ruling, Meta is effectively banned from opening offices or doing business in Russia, according to Russian state media agency TASS. But Russian citizens won’t be accused of extremism for merely using any of Meta’s platforms or services (that is, if they can access them). Many Russians have downloaded VPNs in recent weeks to access many of the Western-owned tech platforms banned by their government.

"The use of Meta's products by individuals and legal entities should not be considered as participation in extremist activities," a spokesman for the prosecutor's office told TASS.

But even those able to access Facebook or Instagram still face limits on free speech. A new Russian law criminalizes the spread of “fake news” or public statements that are critical of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Thousands of Russians have been arrested, fired from jobs or expelled from school for criticizing Russia’s activities in Ukraine, reported NPR.

Despite Whatsapp being spared, future sparring between Russia and Western tech companies could make it harder for Russians to buy new devices or access services. Samsung, Microsoft, Apple, LG and others have banned device sales in Russia. 

MacRumors recently reported that Russian users can no longer access the App Store or pay for any of Apple’s services, which would include iCloud. Google Play has also paused all billing in Russia, although users can still use free apps. Whatsapp offers encrypted backups, but users will need an iCloud or Google Drive account. 

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