Late last month a Moscow court fined WhatsApp 18 million rubles ($294,000) for refusing to transfer data on its users to servers in Russia. Tinder, Snapchat and Spotify also got fined – WhatsApp has refused Moscow’s demand twice, so its penalty is hefty.
It can thus be said that the Jewish Agency is in good company – the Russian government claims that the organization stores the data of potential immigrants abroad: in Israel.
These complaints against the online giants and the Jewish Agency are based on a 2014 law passed a few months after the annexation of Crimea. The goal: to increase Moscow’s control over Russia’s internet.
Moscow wants an isolated internet as in China and North Korea, an effort it has ramped up since its invasion of Ukraine in February, according to Vladimir Ozherelyev, a lawyer at the Russian nongovernmental organization Roskomsvoboda, which fights internet censorship.
“A few years ago fines began to appear – first against large companies, later against smaller ones,” he says. “But it was mainly directed against foreign companies ... [and] didn’t come as a complete surprise.”
But unlike the case of the Jewish Agency, whose operations might get banned in Russia, Moscow isn’t trying to block WhatsApp or Tinder. According to attorney Stanislav Seleznyov, a senior partner at Setevye Svobody, an organization that offers Russians legal help on freedom-of-expression issues, blocking efforts against the big companies are a possibility soon.
“WhatsApp will never transfer its servers to Russia, nor will it have them duplicated here,” Seleznyov says. “That would mean that the data of European citizens would also end up here, which would violate the Europeans’ demands for protection of personal data. And data on U.S. citizens would also end up in Russia. The United States would certainly never agree to that.”
He adds: “It’s clear that WhatsApp will be fined repeatedly until it’s finally blocked.”
Services such as Facebook and Instagram – like WhatsApp under parent company Meta – were blocked in Russia early in the war after they were recognized as “extremist,” but Seleznyov notes that many Russians continue to use them via a virtual private network, a VPN.
Court proceedings on the Russian Justice Ministry’s demand that the Jewish Agency’s Russian branch be shuttered will resume in about two weeks. By then, the agency and the Israeli government might opt for a diplomatic solution.
A delegation of legal scholars representing the Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Aliyah and Integration Ministry and the Privacy Protection Authority was sent to Moscow early in the crisis last month but didn’t produce any results.
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Now the Jewish Agency says the delegation, which has returned to Israel, is working with the agency’s lawyers in the run-up to the court proceedings.
The fast pace of events suggests that Moscow indeed intends to ban the Jewish Agency in Russia. Meanwhile, the agency is considering remote work, while local Jewish organizations might run at least part of the agency’s programs like summer camps or Hebrew-language lessons, under the agency’s supervision.
Last year the agency was fined for failing to win approval for collecting and processing information on candidates for the Naale program, which offers scholarships for high school study in Israel. The agency said another organization collected the data for it, but the court didn’t buy that.
Russia’s Justice Ministry has mentioned this fine as an example of the agency’s violation of privacy laws – a bad sign because running the agency remotely would be even harder without Naale officials in the field.
But there’s another option: Agree to Russia’s main demand and store data on potential immigrants on Russian servers. Aliyah and Integration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata has hinted that Israel is ready for a compromise.
“I’m certain that the subject will be clarified soon, even if they demand a large number of adjustments. We’re prepared for that,” she announced last month.
According to two experts who spoke with Haaretz, the agency’s loss in such an event could prove symbolic because Russia’s FSB security service – the successor to the KGB – already has access to all the data of potential immigrants in contact with the Jewish Agency.
Ozherelyev, the lawyer for Roskomsvoboda, says Russian law doesn’t forbid the transfer of information on Russian citizens to other countries, so there’s nothing to prevent the transfer of data on potential immigrants to Israel.
In effect, the Russian law isn’t designed to protect the privacy of Russian citizens from foreign interests, but to make the data accessible to Russia’s security services.
“You can store the information wherever you want, but it has to pass through Russian servers that are connected to systems accessible to the enforcement authorities,” Ozherelyev says. “There are many cases where the country’s laws ... forbid the granting of such access, whereas Russian law actually requires it.”
He says that either way, the FSB has access to all the data located on Russian territory, and that storing the data on Russian servers “may make their work easier, but in principle the Jewish Agency is required, like any nongovernmental organization, to hand over information like all other organizations whenever required to do so. Technically it would be easier for the FSB, but that doesn’t seem to be their objective, because they can do whatever they want. It’s more like political pressure.”
An example of the ease with which the FSB can get its hands on personal information is a case from 2018 when two laws – the so-called Yarovaya package named after a legislator – went into effect. The legislation requires the storage of all communications data – phone calls, messages, video and audio calls online – for at least six months.
Also, internet services that operate in Russia are required to hand the deciphering keys to the security services. According to the law, all communications data is supposed to be stored for many months and supplied to the FSB on demand.
The question is how feasible the law’s requirements are. “There’s a major technical problem with implementing the law. For example, our conversation is now being conducted on Zoom. As far as we know, Zoom doesn’t archive ordinary conversations, as a default choice,” Seleznyov says.
“In other words, my communications provider must locate this traffic and store it for six months. But considering the number of people who are calling, like me, every moment, that requires huge computer power. Doubts about the law being implemented were raised the moment it was passed,” he adds.
“But starting in February, when the communications providers were left without access to some of their equipment because of the sanctions, even more questions arose – whether it’s realistic to record all internet conversations on Russian territory.”
As for handing over the keys for decoding conversations, the Russian government already experienced a failure when it demanded this in 2014 of Telegram, which was founded in 2013 by Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov. In 2014, Durov left Russia.
In 2018, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet regulator, declared war on Telegram because it refused to give the FSB its decoding keys. Roskomnadzor announced that the messaging service would be blocked in Russia.
But Telegram actually continued to operate; its decentralized and sophisticated structure turned out to be immune to the government’s efforts.
Still, Russian internet users were stung because many sites were disrupted by the attempt to block the app. About two years later Roskomnadzor announced an end to the blocking and basically admitted defeat.