Russian regulators at Roskomnadzor bring case to court calling for mailbox.org ban in Russia

In a few days’ time, a court in Moscow will hear a case that has the goal to restrict access to mailbox.org in Russia. The Russian telecommunications supervisory authority Roskomnadzor is responsible for bringing this case to court. For us at mailbox.org, fighting back against such attempts to manifest Internet censorship is a matter of principle and so, we decided to get legal representation and argue the case from our standpoint.

There were early signs in the fall of 2019, when Russian media outlets announced that the Russian telecommunications supervisory authority Roskomnadzor („Federal Service for the Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media“) was actively working towards implementing a ban of mailbox.org. At the time, we reported about this in our Blog to raise public awareness.

One of the central demands made by Roskomnadzor is that mailbox.org should register as a Russian telecommunications provider because our service can be accessed from within Russia. We do not agree with this view, as we do not maintain a website in Russian language, do not operate any IT equipment in Russia, and do not advertise our services to Russian customers specifically. As a result, we do not see any reason why mailbox.org should be obliged to register with Roskomnadzor.


Free secure communication is at risk

We are observing what we think are very concerning developments, as there appear to be attempts to establish a centralized, censored, and controlled Internet within Russia. We at mailbox.org consider this a blatant attack on Freedom of Expression and Speech, and Freedom of the Press. From our perspective, it looks as if Roskomnadzor is trying to single out individual companies to make an example of, so as to set the ground and prepare for a larger-scale purge of other Internet services in the future.

We also suspect that Roskomnadzor might be under political pressure to present successes with regard to the stricter regulation of national Internet access. Roskomnadzor has been unusually active in the press lately, announcing that several foreign providers are to be banned in the future. When we look at the information emerging around those individual cases, it seems to us that often, there is a prominent lack of concrete legal reasons for the actions proposed. Instead, the selection of providers appears to be quite arbitrary, and maybe the underlying reasoning is that single companies might accept their fate more willingly under Roskomnadzor’s pressure, which the regulators can then present as quick wins.

In recent months, Roskomnadzor announced that they would take legal action against different providers and proposed that these services be banned in Russia, including Startmail, Protonmail, or Scryptmail. Yesterday, it was reported that Roskomnadzor has already started the process of blocking Protonmail. (→ Reuters report)

Court action to block access to mailbox.org

With respect to mailbox.org, Roskomnadzor made a move on 29th December 2019 and submitted their case for blocking access to our services in Russia to a court in Moscow. The first hearing was scheduled for the 15th January, which was very short notice, considering Russian Christmas and New Year holidays are later than elsewhere and end just a week before the date.

mailbox.org has decided to take part in the court proceedings and bring forward legal arguments against the actions proposed by Roskomnadzor. Consequently, we have sought legal representation for the upcoming court session on 5th February 2020. We believe that free and secure communication is of fundamental importance for any free society, and we will stand firm to defend our convictions. We are also confident that our lawyers will be able to make convincing points to argue the upcoming case from our side, and prevent a court order that would lead to the blocking of mailbox.org services in Russia.

In case a ban is actually enacted as a result of the court proceedings, we will be able to adapt to the new situation. After all, our team has 30 years of professional experience. Over the previous few weeks, we have analyzed a range of different blocking- and censoring measures that are currently available and developed appropriate countermeasures. In any case, our dedicated Tor-Exit-Node will ensure availability of mailbox.org for our international customers. It wouldn’t be the first time that Roskomnadzor failed to block access to an Internet service...

Russian authorities and requests for handing over user data

Current Russian laws that govern Internet services include a stipulation that requires registered Russian providers to store all data of Russian users on Russian servers, when asked to do so. While so far, mailbox.org has not received any such demand from Roskomnadzor, we would never comply if such a request was made in the future. For us, it is not acceptable to hand over user data to the authorities in this manner.

Of course, mailbox.org will never act unlawfully, in that we will consider requests for information that are valid on the basis of German and European law, or legally correct international letters of request. We do appreciate and respect the necessity to fight criminal activity on the Web, and accept that the Internet cannot be a space where the law is absent. However, there is a careful balance to be struck, as new laws and regulations could unduly infringe on Freedom of Expression and Speech, or Freedom of the Press, and possibly lead to bans that would exclude providers and their entire user bases. mailbox.org does not tolerate any forms of abuse or criminal activity. We have a dedicated team for handling cases of misuse or abuse, and they take any reports of suspicious activity very seriously, and are trained to be persistent and thorough in following up on any such cases.

While Roskomnadzor alleges that bomb threats were supposedly sent from a mailbox.org account, our records show that we did not receive any related requests for information from the Russian authorities.

Possible consequences for our users

For the time being, we will wait and see how the court case proceeds. In the event that access to mailbox.org will actually be blocked in Russia, this may affect those users who are travelling to Russia, or those who are communicating by e-mail with other people or businesses that are located in Russia. While we are reasonably confident that we will be able to prevent restrictions from being imposed, we need to ask for your understanding that no definitive statements can be made at this point in time.

Keep an eye on our blog if you are interested in following up on further updates and news.