Should Tech Stay or Go in Russia?

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The international trade community is pulling out of Russia. But tech companies including Google, Facebook and Apple are mostly trying to stay open for business there.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, energy giants announced that they would drill for oil and gas drilling projects in the country. The automakers said they would stop making or selling vehicles in Russia. Banks have largely pushed Russia out of the global financial system. The Formula 1 racecar will not zoom around Sochi as planned, nor will British satellites ride on Russian rockets.

Global tech companies have chosen to keep Russians downloading iPhone apps, surfing YouTube and texting on WhatsApp and Telegram. The Russian government, however, is tightening access to news, information and technology in an attempt to deny its citizens the realities of its invasion of Ukraine. On Friday, Russia announced that Facebook would be blocked.

That is the choice that the global technological powers will have to face in 10 days In this battle. Stay or go And is that their choice at all?

If big digital services continue in Russia, will Ukraine and global democracy serve better, or – as requested by Ukrainian leaders – if Russia is treated as a pariah and removed from the digital life of the 21st century.

The decision shows once again that whether tech companies, governments and the public like it or not, a handful of corporate digital powers have become geopolitical brokers. When the tanks begin to roll, it’s a call to action for the heads of the United Nations, central banks – and the chief executives of Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft.

The Arab Spring movement in the early 2010s was one of the earliest signs of this power. Activists in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya rely on U.S. social media sites and smartphones to share images of their governments’ brutality against anti-regime street protests and to organize the logistics of street campaigns.

Egyptian-born tech worker Well Ghonim has set up a Facebook page to remember a man who was beaten by Egyptian police. It erupted in huge rallies in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. A Tunisian man broadcast his location in the application Foursquare when he was captured by government forces and feared he would disappear.

It was the collective power of the citizens, not Mark Zuckerberg, it was the instrument of political change. But the Arab Spring was the high point of tech optimization when it seemed that the Internet had given people the power to disrupt corrupt institutions, and tech companies were on their side.

In the years since that civil uprising, technology companies have sometimes failed to allocate resources and care to stand decisively for those trapped in conflict zones or at the mercy of authoritarian governments.

In 2018, the United Nations concluded that Myanmar’s military had turned Facebook into a propaganda tool for genocide. The company, now called Meta, admits it has not done enough to prevent its site from being used to incite violence. Authorities in Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Somalia have used Twitter and Facebook to harass or annoy critics of their governments. “Facebook has shattered democracy in many parts of the world,” said Maria Resa, a Filipino journalist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

In Russia, two-thirds of Internet-connected people use YouTube, which is owned by Google, and uses the meta-owned messaging app WhatsApp. Instagram and Telegram are also common, according to research firm Insider Intelligence.

Facebook, Twitter and especially YouTube are important outlets for critics of the Russian government, including jailed opposition politician Alexei A. Including Navalny. But last year Mr.’s allies. Navalny criticized Apple and Google for complying with a government request to remove an application to coordinate opposition voting in Russian elections.

At the time, people close to those companies said they had no choice but to comply with Russian authorities who claimed the application was illegal.

Last month’s invasion of Ukraine seemed to make it easier for tech companies to take sides. The international community has almost universally called Russia an adversary.

And while Internet companies in other conflict zones are sometimes caught up with a few staff who speak the language, most have teams that are capable of working in Ukrainian and Russian.

Facebook and Twitter posted instructions to Ukrainian coaching locals to protect or deactivate their accounts to protect themselves from Russian threats. Google Maps has stopped showing traffic information inside Ukraine because it could pose a security risk by showing where people gather.

However, some Ukrainian officials are urging foreign tech companies to do more than that. They want companies to go to Russia in the dark. Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation Mikhail Fedorov is using his Twitter account to force Facebook, Google, Apple, Netflix and video game companies to shut down or limit their tech services in Russia. In doing so, Shri. Fedorov said his government could shake up the Russians to revolt against the aggression.

“In 2022, modern technology is probably the best answer to tanks and other weapons,” he wrote in a letter to Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook.

Apple and Microsoft have said in recent days that they will suspend sales of their products in Russia. Cogent Communications, a US company that provides essential plumbing for the Internet, plans to sever ties with Russian customers, the Washington Post reported Friday. This decision could make it more difficult for Russians to go online without interruption.

Google also suspended all advertising in Russia after the country’s Internet regulator demanded that the company stop sending commercial messages misleading citizens about the attack.

At the moment, it would be a mistake for tech companies to leave Russia altogether, said David Kaye, a law professor and former UN special correspondent on free speech.

Mr. Kaye said the loss of pro-Kremlin propaganda circulating online in Russia was relatively negligible compared to the productive ways in which Russian citizens, activists and journalists use YouTube, Telegram, Signal, Instagram and Google and Apple smartphones.

These techniques help the Russians with information outside of government propaganda and contradict the state narrative of the war. Ukrainians are also using social media to ridicule Russian soldiers, rally foreigners for their cause and share security information. Ukrainian volunteers plan to flood Russian government websites with spam. For a while, Russians searching for Moscow’s landmarks on Google Maps were bombed in Ukraine with photos of bombed houses and wounded civilians.

“While I fully sympathize with the idea that US and international companies should resist the alliance with Russia right now, there are some companies that provide communication to those who really need it,” he said. Kaye said.

Nothing is easier in war, and Mr. Kaye quickly added, “I realize this could have downsides and we need to think about it.”

By backing US or European governments against Russia, companies run the risk of being Western puppets. It could be hostile to Russian dissidents and journalists and could hurt the relations of tech companies in other countries.

While staying can hurt the employees of tech companies. Russia is among the countries that are establishing so-called lending laws that make domestic employees of foreign companies more susceptible to fines, arrests or other penalties if their companies do not comply with government demands. Ultimately, it could be the Kremlin’s choice, not Silicon Valley executives, whether digital service remains or not.

For decades, U.S. The technology industry has repeatedly described what it does as a more efficient and enlightened form of American capitalism – covered by Google’s former informal mantra, “Don’t be evil,” said university professor Margaret O’Mara. Those from Washington who do research on the history of technology. And executives have used those qualities as collateral to argue for more hands on government regulation and taxation.

Tech companies have received special tax breaks for their research and development costs and for venture capital investments in start-ups. In the 1990s, John Perry Barlow declared in an influential manifesto that governments have no sovereignty over the Internet. More recently, Zuckerberg testified in Congress that putting a rail on the US tech titans would open up an opportunity for Chinese technology to take over the world. How exactly that could happen was never explained.

In other words, the general rules should not apply to them. Great for tech companies to be considered a special species of corporation. But as this onslaught demonstrates, global information and communications services are not really like cars or barrels of oil. The war is making the argument better than any imperial CEO.

  • Coders for the World: Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal write that the Russian invasion endangers the lives and jobs of Ukraine’s huge technology workforce, whose software is used by world-famous video games, big banks and car manufacturers. (Subscriptions may be required.)

  • The good and the bad of TikTok in battle: The flow of war footage in the short video app is an important way for outsiders to see and understand what is happening in Ukraine. But Wired says TikTok’s immediacy, reach, and computer-generating sorting battle make it particularly difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. (Subscription may be required.)

    Related: An online video of Ukrainian soldier Xenia Perepelitsa reciting a Persian love poem struck a chord with Iranians and Ukrainians (and me).

  • Fitbit, an Internet-connected gadget company owned by Google, has recalled more than 1 million of its smart watches. Fitbit said it has received more than 100 reports of burns due to overheating batteries in its ionic watches.

Scripps National Spelling Bee Champ Zaila Avant-Garde also starred at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It’s just as wonderful on the float Because she is playing spells and basketball.

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