Meta 'extremist activity' ruling blocks two thousand Russian employees from visiting homeland
Although the company has no offices in Russia, if they enter the country for a family visit or other reasons, they could face criminal charges for participating in the extremist activities
Out of 70,000+ Meta employees, more than 2,000 are Russian citizens, several people who work with Meta have told Faridaily. Although the company has no offices in Russia, if they enter the country for a family visit or other reasons, they could face criminal charges for participating in the extremist activities.
Employees working on the Russian segment of the social network are based out of Warsaw, while ordinary programmers and managers are based in the U.S., England, Ireland, Israel, and other countries. Because of the recent decision, many of them are afraid to visit Russia, and about a dozen have already decided to quit Meta to avoid complications for themselves and their families, two company sources told Faridaily. The company's press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Tverskoy district court in Moscow has found Meta guilty of "carrying out extremist activity" and forbade it "to realize the social networking products Facebook and Instagram" on March 21. One of the most popular messengers in Russia, WhatsApp, was not prohibited.
Unprecedented and controversial
No one has seen the court's decision yet. As it often happens in Russia with cases where organizations are recognized as extremist or terrorist, it will not be published. The court ruling is unprecedented, say the lawyers interviewed by Faridaily: commercial entities have never been recognized as extremist in Russia before.
With the court decision not published, almost all Russian media wrote that Meta was recognized as an extremist organization. This understanding may be derived from the wording by General Prosecutor Office, which requested from the court to "recognize Meta Platforms Inc. as an extremist organization and prohibite its activity on the territory of the Russian Federation" in its statement released on March 11.
The company itself denies being recognized as extremist in their internal communication with employees, heard one of Faridaily's sources. "There was no direct recognition of the company as extremist," lawyer Victoria Shakina, who represented Meta in court, said in an audio message posted on her Telegram channel. She also wrote that until the lawyers get acquainted with the full text of the decision, they "will not be able to understand its meaning and consequences". She decided not to comment on this article.
Alexander Tyulkanov, a lawyer and Special Adviser on Digital Development for the Council of Europe, agrees with Shakina. In his words, until the court decision is published and based on what the judge had said, one can conclude that the court did not recognize Meta as an extremist organization and did not ban it from any activities in Russia except those directly mentioned.
During the court session the judge, Olga Solopova, announced literally the following: "Prohibit the activities of the American transnational holding company Meta Platforms Inc. to realize the social networking products Facebook and Instagram on the grounds of carrying out extremist activities."
A person can be found responsible for collaborating with an extremist organization only after the Russian Ministry of Justice officially includes it in a special open registry for the extremist organizations. However, at this point the register only includes non-profit and religious organizations, while Meta is neither. If Meta was to be included in the register, it will only happen after the appeal process concludes. The company has 30 days to file it.
Consequences for Meta employees from Russia
Despite all the legal uncertainties, in Russian reality, especially during the war, even the worst scenarios cannot be ruled out, says senior partner of the Net Freedom Project Stanislav Seleznev. After the court decision the Net Freedom Project hotline was flooded with questions from Meta's Russian employees, he adds, although the decision is not clear enough to conclude who may be held liable.
Article 282.2 of the Russian Criminal Code states that a person can face large fines or prison term from two up to six years simply for "participating in the activity" of an organization that had been recognized as extremist by a court.
Those Meta employees who may be in Russia right now face the most significant risk, says Seleznev. "An investigator may decide that the combination of circumstances: a person is physically present in Russia and works for Meta, is sufficient to initiate a criminal case. They can conduct a search, confiscate documents and equipment, and detain a citizen as part of it".
Outside of Russia, its citizens may "find themselves" in the country when visiting a consulate, for example, to renew a foreign passport. In theory, the authorities could use the services of an IT-company specializing in open sources search to obtain the information about someone working at Meta, or through the consulates themselves, Seleznev says. (When applying for a foreign passport a Russian citizen must list their employers, and work visas often have the employer information printed on them - Faridaily). At the same time, there are no known precedents of detention of citizens on the territory of embassies and consulates, their employees don't have the authority to do it, however in the current circumstances it can not be completely ruled out, adds the lawyer.
Those accused of extremism can be put on the international wanted list. According to the latest data from the Russian General Prosecutor Office, Russia cooperates on criminal proceedings with 80 countries. In 2020 defendants from Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, as well as from many European states such as Germany, Spain, Poland, Hungary, Cyprus, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway and others were extradited at Russian request.
Russia has no bilateral extradition treaty with the United States. As Seleznev notes, much depends on the independence of the courts in the countries from which Russia requests the extradition. Courts in European countries, for example, often don't find Russia's proof for extradition to be sufficient.
When asked whether Meta employees can transfer money to their relatives in Russia, Seleznev reminded that criminal punishment is established only for financing of extremist activity and participation in it, while money sent to relatives can be hardly seen as intended for extremist activity. Moreover, it may be difficult to prove the link between the money coming from the employee and their work for the extremist organization, he said.
"I think that Meta employees are not subject to the court ruling. They are not decision-makers," said Alexander Khinstein, chairman of the State Duma's Information Policy Committee. "I don't anticipate such concerns," he told Faridaily.