According to Reuters, a judge in a Moscow court declared Instagram and Facebook guilty of "extremist" conduct on Monday, confirming a ban on both sites that took effect earlier this month. However, the court did exempt Whatsapp, one of Meta's primary products and one of Russia's most popular messaging services, from the ban. Following Facebook's decision to temporarily allow for violence calls in Ukraine and a few other countries, Russian authorities decided to file a criminal complaint against Meta. The conclusion of that lawsuit was settled in court today.
Many Russian analysts believe the court chose not to include Whatsapp in the ban because of its widespread use across the country. According to a Deloitte report from 2021, around 80% of Russians over 14 use Whatsapp to communicate. Ironically, the action against Meta caused Whatsapp to lose its position as Russia's most popular messenger. According to Megafon, the most popular messaging app in Russia is Telegram, which was downloaded by millions of Russians in recent weeks due to anxiety over Whatsapp's destiny.
According to Russian state news agency TASS, Meta is effectively barred from creating offices or conducting business in Russia due to the judge's decision. However, Russian residents will not be charged with extremism just for accessing Meta's platforms or services (if they can access them). In recent weeks, many Russians have downloaded VPNs to access many of the Western-owned digital platforms their government has blacklisted.
"The use of Meta's products by individuals and legal entities should not be considered participation in extremist activities," a spokesman for the prosecutor's office told TASS.
However, even individuals who have access to Facebook or Instagram suffer restrictions on their freedom of speech. A new law in Russia makes it illegal to promote "false news" or make public statements critical of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. According to NPR, tens of thousands of Russians have been jailed, sacked from employment, or expelled from school for criticizing Russia's actions in Ukraine.
Even though Whatsapp was spared, future spats between Russia and Western IT firms may make it more difficult for Russians to purchase new devices or access services. Device sales have been prohibited in Russia by Samsung, Microsoft, Apple, LG, and others.
Russian consumers, according to MacRumors, can no longer access the App Store or pay for any of Apple's services, including iCloud. In Russia, Google Play has likewise halted all charging. However, users can still download free apps. Whatsapp provides encrypted backups, but users must have an iCloud or Google Drive account.