While secure messaging app Telegram has been in the headlines for its losing battle with Russia's FSB intelligence agency, it's also been battling an ex-staffer in a little-reported lawsuit that sheds light on the secretive organisation.
The just-settled dispute between Telegram-linked Telegraph LLC and former developer Anton Rozenberg has brought to light an accusation that the secure messaging company maintains staff in Russia, working out of the St Petersburg headquarters of social media outfit VK.
That's potentially troubling is that while VK was founded by a chap named Pavel Durov, who in 2014 wrote that “Today, VKontakte goes under the complete control of Igor Sechin and Alisher Usmanov”.
Sechin and Usmanov are investors linked to Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is not an admirer of a free press or dissent and is known to exercise his will through like-minded entrepreneurs.
Durov was already in the USA when he founded Telegram and has persistently resisted calls by law enforcement agencies around the world to provide access to messages on the platform, a stance that recently resulted in a chump-change US$14k fine in Russia for not handing over encryption keys, a breach of administrative law.
The alleged link between Telegram and VK, Rozenberg explained to The Register via e-mail, could undermine faith in Durov's independence from Russian influence.
Sueballs at twenty paces
Which brings us to two lawsuits: in one, Rozenberg sued Telegraph for unfair dismissal; in the other, Telegraph wanted 100 millions roubles (more than $1 million) from Rozenberg for an alleged breach of trade secrets resulting from his legal filings. Telegraph also objected to Rozenberg describing Telegram.org has his place of work on his Facebook.
The claims and counter-claims are outlined in this post at Russian news site Meduza. Rozenberg has also provided The Register with court documents we've translated from Russian.
Against Rozenberg's claim of unfair dismissal, Telegraph said he was fired for absenteeism, which Rozenberg disputed.
However, Telegraph (which Rozenberg describes as Telegram's legal entity in Russia) settled the cases out-of-court ahead of an October 24 hearing, something Rozenberg told us he hopes will end the matter.
“I'm no longer interested in working with the Durov brothers,” he said in an e-mail, “as well as in the closing entity, where only the CEO remained from the staff.
He told us his unfair dismissal claim has been acknowledge, and “the lawsuit against me for 100 million rubles (~US$1.7 million) will also be withdrawn, without any additional conditions.
“I retained the right to say that I worked as a Special Projects Director in Telegram Messenger and was part of the Telegram's team.”
Perhaps optimistically, Rozenberg also hopes for an apology from those involved.
Durov has responded to at least one outlet regarding the St Petersburg home of Telegram staff, Singer House: he told The Outline they're no longer there.
He said the company vacated that location in 2014, with its staff working remotely.
However, that hasn't silenced allegations the company is tainted by association with Putin's pals. Bloomberg said in September that through developers in Russia, the company remains “open to both legal and extrajudicial risks”.
The legal risk, seen in Telegram's battle with the FSB, and extralegal risk (the alleged links with VK and the FSB) could well make it safer for the company to depart Russia. ®