Russia intensifies censorship campaign and puts pressure on tech giants
As Russia attacks Ukraine, authorities in Moscow intensify a domestic censorship campaign, putting pressure on some of the world’s biggest tech companies.
Last week, Russian authorities warned Google, Meta, Apple, Twitter, TikTok and others that they had until the end of this month to comply with a new law requiring them to form legal entities in the country. The so-called landing law makes the companies and their employees more vulnerable to the Russian legal system and the demands of government censorship, legal experts and civil society groups, they said.
The moves are part of a Russian pressure campaign against foreign tech companies. With the prospect of fines, arrests and the suspension or slowdown of Internet services, authorities are urging companies to censor unfavorable material online while leaving pro-Kremlin media unfiltered.
Apple, TikTok and Spotify have all complied with the landing law, according to Russia’s internet regulator Roskomnadzor, and Google has also taken steps. Twitch and Telegram don’t. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, and Twitter have complied with some parts of the law but not others.
The situation leaves tech companies in a bind, caught between their public support for free speech and privacy and their work in countries with authoritarian leaders. It has forced them to weigh whether their services are available in Russia, or leave it altogether.
The companies are facing increasing pressure from Ukrainian officials and US lawmakers to limit their exposure to Russia. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister has called on Apple, Google, Netflix and Meta to restrict access to their services inside Russia. Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat and the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Meta, Reddit, Telegram and others urging them not to let Russian organizations use their platforms to sow confusion about the war.
Companies around the world are confronted with conflicting demands. Censorship issues once confined to China, home to what is perhaps the world’s most restrictive internet, have spread to Russia, Turkey, Belarus, Myanmar and elsewhere as some seek to establish a more tightly controlled web.
Internet censorship is not easy for Russia. While China has built a series of filters around its internet known as the Great Firewall, Russia’s internet is more open and US technology platforms are widespread in the country. To change that, the Russian government has developed new technological content-blocking methods it has used over the past year to throttle access to Twitter.
Now Russia is expected to step up pressure on tech companies as authorities try to control what information about the war in Ukraine is being shared. Russians have taken to Facebook, Instagram and other foreign social media to criticize the conflict, raising concerns about a crackdown on the platforms.
On Friday, Roskomnadzor said it would limit access to Facebook by slowing down traffic. The regulator said the social network had meddled with several pro-Kremlin media outlets.
Nick Clegg, Meta’s senior political manager, called The company had rejected Russian calls to end independent fact-checking of posts by four state-run media organizations. The company said it would to block Russian state media from running ads in the social network.
The crackdown “is an attempt by the Russian government to increase control over these companies and online content in Russia,” said Pavel Chikov, a human rights lawyer in Russia who specializes in censorship cases. “The Russian government will push them step by step to continue on this path.”
Western companies and organizations are beginning to sort out their ties to Russia amid sanctions designed to isolate the country economically. Energy companies wrestle with the possibility of reduced oil and natural gas supplies. Food producers are facing a potential shortage of Russian and Ukrainian wheat. Even European football clubs have stopped sponsoring Russian companies as a major league game was moved from St. Petersburg to Paris.
The situation is particularly tense for technology companies. Apple and Google control the software on almost every smartphone in Russia and have employees there. YouTube, Instagram and TikTok are popular sites used to get information outside of state media. Telegram, the messaging app that started in Russia and is now based 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 minimize their physical presence in Russia. The law, which came into effect on January 1, requires foreign websites and social media platforms with over 500,000 daily users to register as legal entities in the country with a locally based director. Also, companies must register an account with Roskomnadzor and create an electronic form for Russian citizens or government agencies to contact the companies with complaints.
Establishing a stronger local presence leaves the companies vulnerable to government intimidation, human rights and civil society groups have warned, leading some to dub it a “hostage law”. Last year, Russian authorities threatened to arrest Google and Apple employees in order to force them to take down an app created by supporters of jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny.
“The Russian government would like to have embassies of these companies in Russia,” said Aleksandr Litreev, who worked with Mr. Navalny and is the executive director of Solar Labs, a maker of online censorship bypass software. “They would like a way to pull a lever to manipulate information and how it travels 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 attack on Ukraine
What is the root of this invasion? Russia sees Ukraine as its natural sphere of influence and is unsettled by Ukraine’s proximity to the West and the prospect of the country joining NATO or the European Union. Despite not belonging to either, Ukraine receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
On February 16, a Roskomnadzor official said that companies not complying by the end of the month could face penalties. In addition to fines and possible closures or slowdowns, the penalties, according to the law, could disrupt ad sales, search engine operations, data collection and payments.
“For those companies that have not yet started the landing procedure, we will consider the issue of applying measures before the end of this month,” Vadim Subbotin, deputy head of Roskomnadzor, told the Russian parliament, according to Russian media.
Meta said that while it has taken steps to comply with the new landing law, it has not changed how it reviewed government requests to remove content. Apple, Google and Twitter declined to comment on the law. TikTok, Telegram, Spotify and the other affected companies did not respond to requests for comment.
Human rights and freedom of expression groups said they were disappointed that some of the tech companies, often seen in Russia as less government-bound, complied with the law without public protest.
“The ulterior motive behind the passage of the landing law is to lay legal foundations for widespread online censorship by silencing remaining opposition voices and threatening online freedom of speech,” said Joanna Szymanska, an expert on Russian internet censorship efforts at Article 19. a civil society group based in London.
Mr Chikov, who has represented companies like Telegram in cases against the Russian government, said he met with Facebook last year to discuss its Russia policy. Facebook executives were seeking advice on withdrawing from Russia, he said, including blocking access to Facebook and Instagram. Instead, the company obeyed the law.
Mr Chikov urged tech companies to speak out against Russian demands, even if it results in a ban, to set a broader precedent for fighting censorship.
“There were times when the big tech companies were leaders not only in technology, but also in civil liberties, freedom of expression and privacy,” he said. “Now they act more like big transnational corporations protecting their business interests.”
Anton Trojanowski and Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.