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A lawsuit in St. Petersburg raises questions about Telegram's operations in Russia

Meduza
Anton Rozenberg
Anton Rozenberg
Alexey Loshchilov for Meduza

On September 18, an article appeared on Medium written by a man named Anton Rozenberg, who identified himself as the former technical director at the Russian social network Vkontakte and a former director of special operations at the instant messenger Telegram. In the text, Rozenberg described his falling out with the Durov brothers, who created both Vkontakte and Telegram. He also revealed that he’s filed a lawsuit to challenge his dismissal from “Telegraph” — a company he claims is controlled by Pavel Durov. Meanwhile, the company Telegraph is suing Rozenberg for 100 million rubles ($1.7 million), alleging that he disclosed valuable trade secrets. On September 19, both lawsuits got underway at courts in St. Petersburg. Meduza correspondent Pavel Merzlikin attended both hearings.

Rozenberg vs. Telegraph

“Pavel Durov wants 100 million rubles from me.” That’s how Anton Rozenberg began his September 18 Facebook post, linking to a text published on Medium, where he describes his conflict with the Durov brothers. The next day, on September 19, St. Petersburg’s Kuibyshev District Court heard opening arguments in Rozenberg’s lawsuit against the Telegraph company, where he says the instant messenger Telegram’s Russian employees work, and where he says he was fired after feuding with Nikolai Durov. Rozenberg says his employment was terminated illegally.

Before the hearing, while practicing his argument, Rozenberg mentioned Pavel Durov just a couple of times, saying that Durov was “wrong” when, a day earlier, Durov told Meduza that Rozenberg had no ties to the Telegram team and knew nothing about him losing his job. Durov didn’t stop there, in fact; he also told Meduza that he’d “heard from Rozenberg’s family” that he “suffers from mental illnesses.”

“Needless to say, I haven’t been diagnosed with anything. And for several years now, I’ve had a permit to own a firearm. They wouldn’t have just given me that [if I had a mental illness],” Rozenberg told Meduza, adding that he used to be on friendly terms with both Durov brothers. Their behavior toward him now, he says, is “deeply hurtful.”

Rozenberg doesn’t seem like a man crippled by mental illness. He came to court wearing a t-shirt for a student group at Saint Petersburg State University (where he and Nikolai Durov were reportedly classmates). Before the hearing, he smiled at journalists and told them about his hobbies (following the news, reading literature, mountain tourism, and gardening), and generally behaved very calmly. He admitted that he didn’t expect such a response, saying, “I didn’t write anything extremely new or anything people in this industry, for instance, didn’t already know, or anything that hasn’t already been already published in the media” (here Rozenberg was being sly, as his Medium post does in fact contain several previously unknown — still unverified — details about the Durov brothers, including private information that was clearly never intended for the public).

Anton Rozenberg in court on September 19
Anton Rozenberg in court on September 19
Pavel Merzlikin / Meduza

Rozenberg says neither of the Durov brothers has reached out to him since his post on Medium, but he has been contacted by several interested employers, including some of Telegram’s rivals in the instant-messenger business (though he refused to name which companies). But Russian intelligence agencies, which have long expressed interest in Telegram, have not contacted Rozenberg, he says.

In court, Rozenberg calmly described all the circumstances of his conflict with the Durov brothers, even smiling at times. The only thing he didn’t want to discuss was his wife’s role in the story. (According to his post on Medium, Rozenberg was fired from Telegram after a fight with Nikolai Durov, who allegedly took an inappropriate interest in his wife.) “Now I see this as a labor dispute about my termination. I don’t want to drag my wife into this. It’s just that I had to mention this incident briefly in my article, or the nature of this whole conflict wouldn’t have been clear,” he explained. Rozenberg also confirmed that he and his wife worked at Telegraph together, though he didn’t clarify if she still works there to this day. His wife, Ekaterina, spoke to the news agency RBC on September 19, saying that she’s read her husband’s text on Medium and agrees with it.

Rozenberg’s article, however, isn’t just about a personal conflict involving his wife; he also wrote a great deal about the activities of Telegraph itself, claiming that all its staff were at least until very recently spending all their time working on Telegram. Rozenberg says he was head of special projects and responsible for automating the fight against spam on the messenger. Rozenberg refused to say how many people were employed at Telegraph, but he emphasized that he is aware of no other companies that employ as many Telegram developers. Rozenberg argues that all the key decisions at Telegraph are made by Pavel Durov, including the decision to fire him, Rozenberg says.

The connections between Telegraph and Telegram aren’t only in Rozenberg’s head. One of the founders of the British LLP “Telegram Messenger,” which answers for Telegram on the various mobile app stores, is the company Telegram Inc., which is registered in Belize. According to Russia’s Unified State Register of Legal Entities, the same Telegram Inc. owns Telegraph. Pavel Durov told Meduza, however, that Telegraph and Telegram Messenger LLP aren’t currently associated in any way, though he says Telegram previously outsourced some “Russian spam analysis” work to Telegraph.

On September 19, the case’s third hearing took place, and it was the first time the court actually discussed the essence of Rozenberg’s lawsuit. At an earlier hearing, his lawyer, Yuri Golovin, petitioned the judge to call Pavel Durov as a witness, but the lawyers from Telegraph insisted that Durov has no connection to the business.

Rozenberg pointed out that Telegraph is based in St. Petersburg’s Singer House complex, in the same building as Vkontakte’s headquarters, and claimed that Nikolai Durov worked for the company. Staff weren’t required to be in the office all the time, Rozenberg said, so long as they got their work done on time.

Formally, Rozenberg lost his job because he allegedly skipped work for 19 consecutive days. He denies this, and shared with the court screenshots of work correspondence that show he was on the job throughout the time he supposedly played hooky. Rozenberg says his goal is to prove to the court that he was fired illegally. Ideally, he says, he’d like to get his job back. “I want to keep working. Everything was great at Telegram,” he told the judge.

Evidence submitted to the court by Telegraph documenting Rozenberg's termination.
Evidence submitted to the court by Telegraph documenting Rozenberg's termination.
Anton Rozenberg

Rozenberg is suing his former employers for 500,000 rubles ($8,635), including wage arrears beginning in April 2017 and 60,000 rubles ($1,035) in compensation for moral harm (he says the loss of his job subjected him to heightened stress and he had to meet with a doctor). Rozenberg says his unpaid wages are only rising, driving up his demands on his former employers (initially he was suing for only 460,000 rubles).

Rozenberg says he’s prepared to settle, if he’s offered his old job back, and if Pavel Durov writes publicly that the whole scandal was the result of a personal conflict and not due to Rozenberg’s professional abilities. He says he’s also open to an agreement where he isn’t invited back to Telegraph, offering to drop his lawsuit if the company pays him 30 million rubles ($518,000) outright. “It was an emotional reaction to being fired,” Rozenberg says. “Of course I don't expect them to pay me so much. I just wanted to hear at least some kind of proposal from their side. But the only offer I got was 100 rubles [$1.70] from their lawyer before one of the hearings.” Rozenberg says he suspects this was a joke.

After Rozenberg concluded his remarks at the hearing, lawyers from Telegraph simply stopped coming to court. The company’s staff — witnesses who would allegedly corroborate Rozenberg’s work absences — were also no-shows. The next hearing in the trial is scheduled for October 24.

Telegraph vs. Rozenberg

On September 19, another lawsuit, this one brought by Telegraph against Anton Rozenberg, got started in St. Petersburg’s Petrodvorets District Court. The company claims that Rozenberg disclosed commercial secrets when he indicated on Facebook that his place of work was Telegram.org. The company’s lawyers are also challenging his use of notarized copies of work correspondence in his lawsuit against Telegraph.

Lawyers claim that Telegram Messenger LLP terminated its contract with Telegraph because of Rozenberg’s actions, and they have demanded 100 million rubles ($1.7 million) in compensation for lost revenue. “I think this lawsuit is an emotional response to mine,” Rozenberg told Meduza. His lawyer, Yuri Golovin, argues that Telegraph has offered no explanation for its claim that the company lost 100 million rubles in profits.

Rozenberg, meanwhile, insists that he didn’t divulge any trade secrets, saying that the company has no grounds to bring such a lawsuit against him, insofar as he never signed any formal agreement related to laws about commercial secrets (though he did sign an employment contract that included non-disclosure clauses about the details of the company’s work).

Before the hearing got underway, Rozenberg again explained to journalists that he isn’t trying and doesn’t want to expose any of the messenger’s secrets, adding that he doesn’t know anything about Telegram’s potential cooperation with intelligence agencies, or whether the app monitors its users’ correspondence.

Representatives from Telegraph skipped this hearing, as well. The next court session is scheduled for October 17, and it will likely take place behind closed doors, given the company’s insistence that the trial could reveal more of its trade secrets.

Rozenberg says it’s a closed hearing that worries him most, and it’s this prospect, he says, that drove him to write publicly about the case on Medium. “Being sued for 100 million is already a cause for concern. And in a closed session, anything can happen. Maybe some kind of non-disclosure agreement I supposedly signed will appear. I hope it doesn’t come to that,” he said.

The social network Vkontakte has refused to comment on the conflict between Rozenberg and the Durov brothers. One of the company’s representatives told Meduza simply, “This isn’t our war.”

Russian text by Pavel Merzlikin, in St. Petersburg, translation by Kevin Rothrock