As Russia invades Ukraine, authorities in Moscow are intensifying home-based censorship campaigns by cracking down on some of the world’s largest tech companies.
Last week, Russian authorities warned Google, Meta, Apple, Twitter, TikTok and others that they would have to comply with a new law by the end of this month that would require them to establish legal entities in the country. The so-called landing law makes companies and their employees more sensitive to the demands of Russia’s legal system and government censors, legal experts and civil society groups.
The move is part of a Russian crackdown on foreign technology companies. Using fines, arrests and the possibility of blocking or slowing down Internet services, authorities are forcing companies to censor pro-Kremlin media and censor unfavorable content online.
Apple, TikTok and Spotify have complied with the landing law, according to Russian Internet regulator Roskomnadzor, and Google has taken steps to do the same. Twitch and Telegram do not have. Parents of Meta, Facebook and Twitter have complied with some parts of the law but not others.
The situation binds tech companies, trapped between their public support for free expression and privacy and their work in countries with dictatorial leaders. It has forced them to weigh in against giving up their services in Russia altogether.
Increasingly, companies are facing pressure from Ukrainian officials and US legislators to limit their involvement in Russia. Ukraine’s vice prime minister has asked Apple, Google, Netflix and Meta to block access to their services inside Russia. Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Meta, Reddit, Telegram and others, urging them not to allow Russian institutions to use their platform to confuse the war.
Companies are facing conflicting demands from around the world. Censorship issues that were once isolated from China, perhaps the home of the world’s most restricted Internet, are spreading to Russia, Turkey, Belarus, Myanmar and elsewhere as some of them seek to create more tightly controlled web.
For Russia, censoring the Internet is not easy. While China has built a series of filters around its Internet called the Great Firewall, Russia’s Internet is more open and US tech platforms are widely used in the country. To replace that, the Russian government has created new technological methods to block content, which it used last year to throttle access to Twitter.
Russia is now expected to increase pressure on tech companies as authorities try to control what information is being circulated about the war in Ukraine. Russians have used Facebook, Instagram and other foreign social media outlets to criticize the conflict, voicing concerns of crackdowns on the platforms.
On Friday, Roskomnadzor said it would slow down traffic and restrict access to Facebook. The regulator said the social network had interfered with several pro-Kremlin media outlets.
Nick Clegg, Metana’s top policy executive, Said The company rejected Russian demands that it close an independent fact-check on the posts of four state-owned media outlets. The company said Restrict Russian state media from running advertisements On social networks.
Clampdown is “an attempt by the Russian government to increase control over these companies and online content in Russia,” said Pavel Chikov, a Russian human rights lawyer who specializes in censorship cases. “The Russian government will push them, step by step, to go further down this road.”
Western companies and organizations are only beginning to sort out their relations with Russia in the light of sanctions aimed at isolating the country economically. Energy companies are grappling with the prospect of declining oil and natural gas supplies. Food producers are facing potential shortages of Russian and Ukrainian wheat. European soccer clubs have also dropped sponsorships from Russian companies, including the main championship match St. Petersburg to Paris.
The situation is particularly dire for tech companies. Apple and Google control the software on almost every smartphone in Russia and there are employees. YouTube, Instagram and TikTok are popular sites used to obtain information outside of state-run media. The Telegram, a messaging application that was launched in Russia and is now located in Dubai after disputes with the government, is one of the country’s most popular communication tools.
The new landing law is a move by the Kremlin to counter attempts by tech companies to reduce their physical presence in Russia. The law, which came into force in January. 1, requires foreign websites and social media platforms that have more than 500,000 daily users to register as legal entities in the country, with a locally based leader. It also requires companies to register an account with Roskomnadzor and create an electronic form for Russian citizens or government authorities to contact companies with complaints.
The further establishment of local presence makes companies more vulnerable to intimidation by the government, human rights and civil society groups have warned, leading some to call it a “hostage law.” Last year, Russian authorities threatened to arrest employees of Google and Apple in order to release Alexei A., a Russian opposition leader imprisoned. Forced to remove the application created by the proponents of the novel.
“The Russian government wants to keep the embassies of those companies in Russia,” said Alexander Litriev, who met with Mr. Navalny is also the chief executive of Solar Labs, which develops software to prevent online censorship. “They want to find a way to leverage information and how it spreads around the Internet.”
In November, the government listed 13 companies that must comply with the new landing law: Meta, Twitter, Tiktok, LikeMe, Pinterest, Viber, Telegram, Discord, Zoom, Apple, Google, Spotify and Twitch.
Understand Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
What is the root of this aggression? Russia regards Ukraine as its natural sphere of influence, and has become increasingly concerned about Ukraine’s proximity to the West and the possibility of the country joining NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is not part of either, it receives financial and military assistance from the United States and Europe.
On Feb. 16, a Roskomnadzor official said companies that do not comply by the end of the month will face penalties. In addition to penalties and potential shutdowns or recessions, penalties can disrupt advertising sales, search engine operations, data collection, and payments under the law.
“For those companies that have not started the process for ‘landing’, we will consider the issue of implementing the measures before the end of this month,” said Vadim Subbotin, deputy head of Roskomnadzor, according to Russian media, in the Russian parliament.
Meta said that while it was taking steps to comply with the new landing law, it did not change how it reviewed government demands to remove the content. Apple, Google and Twitter declined to comment on the law. TikTok, Telegram, Spotify and other targeted companies did not respond to requests for comment.
Human-rights and free-speech groups have said they are disappointed that some technology companies, which are often seen as inferior to the government inside Russia, are complying with the law without public protest.
“The purpose behind the adoption of the landing law is to create a legal basis for widespread online censorship by silencing the remaining opposition voices and endangering the freedom of online expression,” said Joanna Szimenska, referring to Article 19 of the Russian Internet Censorship Act. London-based Society Group.
Mr. Chikov, who represents companies including Telegram in cases against the Russian government, said they met with Facebook last year to discuss its Russia’s policies. Facebook officials sought advice on whether to pull out of Russia, he said, including cutting off access to Facebook and Instagram. The company complied with the law instead.
Mr. Chikov urged tech companies to speak out against Russian demands, even if they result in sanctions, to set a broader example of fighting censorship.
“The time has come when big tech companies have been at the forefront not only in terms of technology but also in terms of civil liberties and freedom of expression and privacy,” he said. “Now they protect their business interests like the big transnational corporations.”
Anton Troanovsky And Oleg Matsnev Contribution Report.