Apple and Google: Just Being Responsive to Russia

October 15, 2021

What is an authoritarian regime to do? It is important to control one’s own citizens’ access to the Internet, yet one needs global social media platforms to spread misinformation to foreign populations. Never fear, U.S. big tech is here. Wait, what? The Conversation reports, “Russia Is Building Its Own Kind of Sovereign Internet—with Help from Apple and Google.” Writer William Partlett reveals:

“On September 17, the first day of Russia’s parliamentary elections, Apple and Google agreed to demands from the Russian government to remove a strategic voting app developed by opposition leader Alexei Navalny from the iOS and Android app stores. Apple then disabled its Private Relay feature (which enhances web browsing privacy) for users in Russia. Google also removed YouTube videos giving advice on how to vote strategically in the elections. In the past, large tech companies have generally ignored censorship requests from the Russian government. So why did the US tech giants finally cave in to pressure? The answer provides a glimpse into how Russia, a sophisticated cyber superpower, is building its sovereign internet. It is preserving control, but without isolating itself from the broader internet.”

Perhaps inspired by China’s Great Firewall, Russia has worked to digitally isolate itself. However, the government needs its connection to the World Wide Web to maintain its propaganda war on other countries. Partlett notes two main provisions Russia is relying on to keep this balance. One involves slowing down internet access to targeted platforms. Another is requiring social media companies with more than 500,000 daily Russian visitors to maintain employees in that country. Both provisions were used to coerce the removal of Nalvany’s voting app from the iOS and Android app stores. If the companies did not comply, we learn, there would have been these consequences:

“First, the state would prosecute Russia-based employees of Google and Apple. Second, it promised to slow down internet traffic to Apple and Google platforms in Russia, and shut down the Apple Pay and Google Pay services. Facing an escalating series of threats, the tech giants eventually backed down and removed the app.”

Of course they did, because both are corporations with their bottom lines top-of-mind. The motto “don’t be evil” was shelved a long time ago. (Though, to be fair, the welfare of their Russian employees probably played a role. We hope.) Partlett wonders: how can opposition movements proceed when they rely on big tech’s platforms to get the message out? Good question.

Cynthia Murrell October 15, 2021

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