Encrypted Email Service Blocked in Russia – UPDATED

StartMail received news that the Russian Federal Security Bureau (FSB and the successor to the KGB within the intelligence agency) started restricting access to the StartMail service in the Russian Federation territory as of January 23, 2020.  

The reason given is “to protect the Russian segment of the Internet from disseminating inaccurate socially significant information, distributed under the guise of reliable messages”. In this specific case, they claim that thousands of false bomb threats were sent from email accounts. 

Two days earlier, on January 21, 2020, StartMail received a letter by registered mail from the Russian communications watchdog Roskomnadzor, accusing StartMail of several offenses under Russian Federal Law. 

Moreover, digital rights organization Roskomvoboda recently informed StartMail that on December 27, 2019, was added to a Russian Register of information distribution organizers without StartMail’s knowledge or consent. This register is part of a recent Russian initiative to force foreign internet providers to make all Russian citizen data and all data encryption keys accessible to Russian authorities. 

To be clear: StartMail never registered for this register or contacted the Russian authorities in any way, nor has StartMail provided any information about StartMail users to the Russian authorities. 

Presently, it seems that IP addresses of StartMail’s email servers are being blocked and the website is no longer available from Russia. We feel that there is no justification for blocking StartMail will continue to evaluate the technical situation to see if we can restore access to our encrypted email service for our Russian users. 

Compliance with legitimate requests by authorities 

When it comes to dealing with criminal behavior, StartMail complies with EU and Dutch laws. StartMail believes in the high legal norms and practices of the state of law of the Netherlands.  How we deal with requests for information is clearly stipulated in our Privacy Policy and our Terms of Service

While we respect and try to protect your privacy to the best of our abilities, your use of StartMail does not place you above the law. But neither do we place authorities above the law. ONLY if we receive a request from Dutch judicial authorities to hand over information about one of our users, will we have our lawyers check the validity of the request and determine whether we are obliged to comply. We will NOT comply with such requests unless we are convinced that the request is legally valid and we believe that it is undeniably our legal obligation to comply. 

We will NOT comply with requests from any authorities other than Dutch authorities. If we receive a request from any foreign government, we will refuse to comply and will instead instruct the requestor to place a formal request to the Dutch authorities for mutual assistance. 

Lastly, StartMail will never cooperate with any voluntary surveillance programs. Under the strong laws that protect the right to privacy in Europe, European governments cannot legally force service providers like StartMail to implement a blanket-spying program on their users. 

StartMail’s position regarding the blocking in Russia 

Making false terror threats is an illegal activity in the Netherlands and it is against StartMail’s Terms of Service to use the StartMail application for criminal purposes in any way or form. If the Russian government brings a criminal matter (such as fake bomb threats) with proper evidence to the Dutch Authorities for Legal Assistance and/or to StartMail’s internal abuse team, StartMail will investigate and take action against the accounts in question if necessary. However, the Russian government has not contacted us on this matter. If there is a legitimate legal case to be made against certain StartMail accounts, we encourage the Russian government to reconsider their position and follow established international law and legal procedures, rather than blocking access and denying Russian citizens access to better email security and privacy. 

StartMail has connected with digital rights organization Roskomvoboda in Moscow. 

Roskomvoboda is providing legal assistance to StartMail to challenge both the entry into the register and the blocking of its secure email service in the Russian Federation. 

UPDATE – April 21, 2020

Recently Roskomsvoboda filed two appeals on behalf of StartMail. The first one is against the administrative fine.  The second one is against the listing of our company in the state registry of online services obliged to give users’ data to the Russian authorities. 

The preliminary hearing has already been scheduled for June 3, 2020.  
We are planning to submit a claim objecting the decision of the Office of the Prosecutor General to block StartMail during the week of April 27th.

We will continue to provide updates to this situation via the StartMail blog.  

Robert Beens 
CEO of StartMail

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