Tech

Russia intensifies its Censorship Campaign and Pressuring Tech Giants.

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A new Russian law is a move by the Kremlin to counter attempts by tech companies to minimize their physical presence in the country.Credit...Left and center, Laura Morton for The New York Times; right, Gabby Jones for The New York Times

Google, Apple, and others were warned they had to comply with a new law that would make them more susceptible to the Kremlin’sKremlin’s censorship demands.

Russia is attacking Ukraine. Moscow’sMoscow’s authorities are intensifying their censorship campaign by closing down some of the largest tech companies in the world.

Russian authorities warned Google and Meta, Apple, Twitter, and TikTok that they have until the end of this month to comply with a new law that required them to establish legal entities in Russia. According to legal experts and civil societies groups, the so-called landing law makes companies and employees more vulnerable to Russia’sRussia’s legal system and demands from government censors.

These moves are part of a Russian campaign to pressure foreign technology companies. The authorities threaten companies with fines, arrests, and blocking or slowing down internet services. They also want to pressure them to censor any content that isn’tisn’t favorable online while leaving pro-Kremlin media intact.

According to Roskomnadzor (Russian internet regulator), Apple, TikTok, and Spotify complied with the landing law. Google has also taken steps to comply. Twitch, Telegram, and Telegram have not. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Twitter, has not complied with certain parts of the law.

This situation places tech companies in a difficult position, with their public support for freedom of expression and privacy conflicting with their work in countries where authoritarian leaders are present. They have had to decide whether they should remain in Russia or not.

U.S. lawmakers and Ukrainian officials pressure the companies to reduce their Russian involvement. On Friday, Ukraine’sUkraine’s vice-prime minister stated that he had requested Apple to stop Russians from accessing its App Store. Senator Mark Warner, Democrat from Virginia, wrote a letter to Meta and Reddit, Telegram, and other organizations asking them not to allow Russian entities to use their platforms for creating confusion about the war.

These demands are growing all around the world. As some try to create a more tightly controlled internet, censorship issues that were once limited to China are now spreading to Russia, Turkey, and Belarus.

Missile damage in Kyiv, Ukraine. Russia is trying to control what information is disseminated about the war in Ukraine.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Russia is finding it difficult to censor the internet. China has established a Great Firewall to protect its internet. Russia is open and uses many U.S. technology platforms. The Russian government created new technical methods to block content. It used them last year to restrict access to Twitter.

Russia will likely increase pressure on tech companies as authorities attempt to restrict the dissemination of information about the conflict in Ukraine. Russians have been using Facebook, Instagram, and other social media outlets to criticize the competition. This has sparked concerns about a crackdown.

Roskomnadzor announced Friday that it would restrict Facebook access by slowing down traffic. Roskomnadzor claimed that the social network had interacted with pro-Kremlin media outlets.

There were no indications that Facebook access had been blocked in Russia as of Friday night. Meta’sMeta’s top policy officer Nick Clegg stated that Meta had rejected Russian demands for it to stop independent fact-checking posts from four state-owned media outlets. Later, the company said it would prohibit Russian state media from posting ads on Facebook.

Pavel Chikov, a Russian human rights lawyer, specializing in censorship cases, stated that the Russian government is trying to clamp down on these companies. “The Russian government is pushing them to continue down this path step-by-step.”

Meta stated that it complied with the new lending laws, but it had not altered its review process for government requests to remove content. A spokesperson for Meta said that the company was taking steps to establish a formal channel to communicate with Russian authorities when required.

Apple, Google, and Twitter did not comment on the law. Twitter stated on Friday that it was suspending ads in Russia and Ukraine and was looking for misinformation regarding the war. Requests for comment from TikTok and Telegram, Spotify, and other targeted companies were not answered.

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Companies and organizations from the West are still trying to resolve their relationships with Russia in light of the sanctions that have been placed on Russia. The possibility of lower oil and natural gas supplies is a concern for energy companies. Russian and Ukrainian wheat could be a problem for food producers. European soccer clubs have stopped sponsoring Russian companies. A significant championship match will be moved from St. Petersburg to Paris.

Ukrainian soldiers in Kharkiv on Friday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

This is a complicated situation for tech companies. Apple and Google have Russian employees and control almost all smartphones in Russia. YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok all have a large following that can be used for information beyond state media. Telegram, a messaging app created in Russia, is legally based in London following disputes with the government. It is one of the most popular communication tools in the country.

Kremlin has created a new landing law to stop tech companies from trying to reduce their presence in Russia. January 1 was the effective date of the law. It requires that foreign websites and social media platforms with more than 500,000 users per day register in Russia as legal entities, along with a local leader. The law requires companies to open an account with Roskomnadzor and create an electronic form that allows Russian citizens or government officials to reach the companies with complaints.

Companies with a greater presence in a particular area are more vulnerable to being intimidated by the government, civil society groups, and human rights organizations. Russian authorities threatened to arrest Google and Apple employees last year to force them to delete an app made by Aleksei Navalny’sNavalny’s supporters, a Russian opposition leader.

Aleksandr Litreev said that the Russian government would love to have embassies for those Russian companies. They would like to be able to control information flow and manipulate it. He worked alongside Mr. Navalny as the chief executive at Solar Labs, which makes software to bypass online censorship.

In November, the government listed 13 companies that had to comply with the new lending laws: Meta, Twitter TikTok and Like me, Pinterest, Viber Telegram, Telegram Discord, Zoom Apple, Google Spotify, Twitch.

Although Apple, Google, and Spotify have all taken steps to meet the requirements, including setting up local legal entities, Telegram and Discord had not yet met any of these requirements as of Friday, according to Roskomnadzor. Twitter, Meta, and Zoom had registered representatives with the regulator to speed up communication. However, they had not yet established a Russian legal entity.

A Roskomnadzor official stated that companies who failed to comply by the end of the month would be subject to penalties on February 16. According to the law, fines can disrupt ad sales, search engine operations, and payment collection.

According to Russian media, Vadim Subbotin (deputy head of Roskomnadzor) stated that ” for those companies that have not started the ”landing”, we will consider applying measures before this month.”

Free-speech and human-rights groups expressed disappointment that tech companies were not protesting the law, which they often view as less binding to Russia’sRussia’s government.

“The landing law was adopted because it creates legal grounds for extensive online censorship by silencing remaining opposing voices and threatening freedom to express online,” Joanna Szymanska, a specialist on Russian internet censorship efforts at Article 19, an international civil society group, stated.

He said that he had met with Facebook last year to discuss its Russia policies. He said that Facebook executives wanted advice about whether Russia should be pulled out. This included cutting off access to Instagram and Facebook. Instead, the company followed the laws.

To set a precedent for fighting censorship, Mr. Chikov encouraged tech companies to voice their opposition to the Russian demands.

He said that there had been instances when big tech companies were leaders in technology and civil liberty and freedoms of expression and privacy. They now behave more like large transnational corporations to protect their business interests.”

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