By Michael Shields
ZURICH (Reuters) - Geneva-based Proton AG, the company behind ProtonMail and ProtonVPN, has won an appeal regarding its treatment under Swiss law governing telecommunications surveillance, a Swiss court said on Friday.
Proton calls itself the world's largest secure email provider, using end-to-end encryption and state-of-the-art security features.
The Swiss Federal Administrative Court upheld its appeal against the Swiss Post and Telecommunications Surveillance Service (PTSS) over its status and obligations to monitor traffic.
The court confirmed that email services cannot be considered telecommunications providers in Switzerland, and thus are not subject to the data retention requirements imposed on them.
Proton founder and Chief Executive Andy Yen said Friday's ruling was an "important first step" in its campaign to advance privacy and freedom.
"We expect there to be further attempts to force tech companies to undermine privacy in both Switzerland and abroad, and we are committed to continuing to challenge this through both our encryption technology and through the courts," he said.
PTSS had decided in September 2020 that Proton and ProtonVPN could no longer benefit from limited surveillance obligations, but had to store data necessary for surveillance and be available to answer its questions around the clock.
The court overturned that ruling and sent the case back for a fresh decision.
The verdict followed a Swiss Supreme Court ruling in April that providers of chat, instant messaging, Internet video or telephone services, or email services such as Threema, WhatsApp, iMessage, Zoom, Teams, Chime or Skype were not telecom service providers but rather "over-the-top" (OTT) service providers.
"Together, these two rulings are a victory for privacy in Switzerland and a victory for Swiss tech startups as they exempt them from onerous telco regulations and handing over certain user information in response to Swiss legal orders," Proton said in a statement.
Still, Proton has faced criticism after a police report revealed that it provided the IP address of a user in a French investigation that led to the arrest of climate activists.
PTSS, which coordinates approaches to companies from Swiss police, prosecutors or intelligence services seeking information on users, did not respond immediately to a call seeking comment.
(Additional reporting by Silke Koltrowitz; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Chizu Nomiyama)