As Russia attacks Ukraine, authorities in Moscow are stepping up a campaign of censorship in the country by crushing 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 set up legal entities in the country. The so-called Disembarkation Law makes companies and their employees more vulnerable to the Russian legal system and the demands of government censors, legal experts and civil society groups.
These measures are part of a Russian pressure campaign against foreign technology companies. Using the prospect of fines, arrests and the blocking or slowing down of internet services, authorities are pushing companies to censor unfavorable content online while keeping pro-Kremlin media unfiltered.
Apple, TikTok and Spotify have complied with the landing law, according to Russian internet regulator Roskomnadzor, and Google has also taken steps to do so. Twitch and Telegram did not. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, and Twitter complied with some parts of the law but not others.
The situation puts tech companies in a bind, caught between their public support for free speech and privacy and their work in countries ruled by authoritarian leaders. This forced them to weigh the availability of their services in Russia against leaving altogether.
Increasingly, the companies are under pressure from Ukrainian officials and US lawmakers to limit their involvement in Russia. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister has asked Apple, Google, Netflix and Meta to restrict access to their services in Russia. Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat of Virginia and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Meta, Reddit, Telegram and others, urging them not to let Russian entities use their platforms to confuse about of the war.
Businesses face conflicting demands from around the world. Censorship issues that were once isolated to China, home to perhaps the world’s most restrictive internet, have spread to Russia, Turkey, Belarus, Myanmar and elsewhere as some of them try to build a more tightly controlled web.
For Russia, censoring the Internet is not easy. While China has built a series of filters known as the Great Firewall around its internet, the Russian internet is more open and American technology platforms are widely used in the country. To change that, the Russian government has come up with new technical methods of content blocking, which it used last year to limit access to Twitter.
Russia is now expected to step up pressure on tech companies as authorities try to control reports of the war in Ukraine. Russians have taken to Facebook, Instagram and other foreign social media to criticize the conflict, stoking fears of a crackdown on the platforms.
On Friday, Roskomnadzor said it would restrict access to Facebook by slowing down traffic. The regulator said the social network interfered with several pro-Kremlin outlets.
Nick Clegg, Meta’s top policymaker, noted the company had refused Russian demands to end independent verification of publications by four state-owned media outlets. The company said it would ban Russian state media from running advertisements on the social network.
Twitter, who said it was pause ads in Ukraine and Russia, said on Saturday that his service was also restricted for some people in Russia. On Sunday, Roskomnadzor also demanded that Google lift restrictions on some Russian media outlets after the company limited their ability to make money from advertising on YouTube.
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 go further in this direction.”
Western companies and organizations are just beginning to sort out their ties with Russia in light of sanctions designed to economically isolate the country. Energy companies are grappling with the possibility of reduced oil and natural gas supplies. Food producers face a potential shortage of Russian and Ukrainian wheat. Even European soccer clubs have dropped sponsorships from Russian companies, with a major league game moving from St Petersburg to Paris.
The situation is particularly difficult for technology companies. Apple and Google control the software on almost all smartphones in Russia and have employees there. YouTube, Instagram and TikTok are popular sites used to get news outside of public 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 disembarkation law is a move by the Kremlin to counter attempts by tech companies to downplay their physical presence in Russia. The law, which took effect on 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 local manager. It also requires companies to create an account with Roskomnadzor and create an electronic form for Russian citizens or government authorities to contact companies with complaints.
Establishing a greater local presence makes companies vulnerable to government intimidation, human rights and civil society groups have warned, leading some to call it the ” hostage law. Last year, Russian authorities threatened to arrest Google and Apple employees 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 has worked with Navalny and is the chief executive of Solar Labs, a maker of software to circumvent online censorship. “They would like to have a way to pull a lever to manipulate information and how it travels across 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.
Understanding the Russian attack on Ukraine
What is behind this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has become unnerved by Ukraine’s closeness to the West and the prospect of the country joining NATO or the European Union. Although Ukraine is not part of either, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
On Feb. 16, a Roskomnadzor official said companies that fail to comply by the end of the month will face penalties. In addition to fines and possible shutdowns or slowdowns, penalties could disrupt ad sales, search engine operations, data collection, and payments, as required by law.
“For companies that have not started the ‘disembarkation’ procedure, we will consider the issue of the application of the measures before the end of this month,” Vadim Subbotin, deputy director of Roskomnadzor, told the Russian parliament, according to Russian media.
Meta said that while it took steps to comply with the new disembarkation law, it had not changed the way it reviews government requests to remove content. Apple, Google and Twitter declined to comment on the law. TikTok, Telegram, Spotify and the other companies targeted did not respond to requests for comment.
Human rights and free speech groups have said they are disappointed that some of the tech companies, often seen in Russia as less beholden to the government, are complying with the law without public protest.
“The ulterior motive behind passing the D-Day Act is to create legal grounds for extensive online censorship by silencing remaining opposition voices and threatening freedom of expression online,” Joanna Szymanska, an expert on Russian internet censorship efforts, told civil society Article 19. London-based social group.
Mr. Chikov, who has represented companies such as Telegram in cases against the Russian government, said he met with Facebook last year to discuss its policy in Russia. Facebook executives have sought advice on whether to pull out of Russia, he said, including cutting off access to Facebook and Instagram. Instead, the company complied with the laws.
Mr. Chikov urged tech companies to speak out against Russian demands, even if it results in a ban, to set a broader precedent in the fight against censorship.
“There have been times when big tech companies have been leaders not only in terms of technology, but also in civil liberties and freedom of expression and privacy,” he said. “Now they behave more like large transnational corporations securing their business interests.”
Anton Troyanovsky and Oleg Matsnev contributed report.