Russia Pressures Tech Giants by Intensifying Censorship Campaign

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As Russia attacks Ukraine, authorities in Moscow are intensifying a campaign of censorship at home, squeezing some of the world’s biggest tech companies.

Last week, Russian officials 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 establish legal entities in the country. The so-called expulsion law makes companies and their employees more vulnerable to Russia’s legal system and demands from government censors, legal experts and civil society groups.

The moves are part of a Russian pressure campaign against foreign tech companies. Using the prospect of fines, arrests, and blocking or slowing of internet services, authorities are forcing companies to censor unsuitable material online without filtering pro-Kremlin media.

According to Russian internet regulator Roskomnadzor, Apple, TikTok and Spotify complied with the landing law, and Google has taken steps to do so. Not on Twitch and Telegram. Facebook’s parents Meta and Twitter comply with some parts of the law and not others.

The situation puts tech companies at a stalemate between their public support for freedom of expression and privacy and their work in countries with authoritarian leaders. He forced them to weigh their service in Russia against complete secession.

Increasingly, companies are facing 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 inside Russia. Virginia Democratic Senator Mark Warner, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Meta, Reddit, Telegram and others, asking them not to allow Russian entities to use their platform to create confusion about the war.

Companies face conflicting demands from all over the world. Isolated in China, once home to perhaps the most restrictive internet in the world, censorship issues have spread to Russia, Turkey, Belarus, Myanmar and elsewhere as some try to build a more tightly controlled network.

Censoring the internet 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 widely used in the country. To change that, the Russian government has developed new technical means to block content that it used to restrict access to Twitter last year.

Now, Russia is expected to increase the pressure on tech companies as officials try to control what information is being spread about the war in Ukraine. Russians have used Facebook, Instagram and other foreign social media outlets to criticize the conflict, fueling concerns that there will be pressure on the platforms.

On Friday, Roskomnadzor said it would restrict access to Facebook by slowing traffic. The regulator said the social network interfered with several pro-Kremlin media outlets.

Nick Clegg, Meta’s senior policy manager, said: I said The company had refused Russia’s requests to stop independent verification of posts by four state-owned media outlets. The company said it would Ban Russian state media from running advertisements in the social network.

said Twitter, pause ads In Ukraine and Russia, he said on Saturday, 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 monetize ads on YouTube.

Pavel Chikov, a human rights lawyer specializing in censorship cases in Russia, said the restriction was “an attempt by the Russian government to increase its control over these companies and online content in Russia.” “The Russian government will force them to go step by step on this path,” he said.

Western companies and organizations are just beginning to unravel their ties with Russia in light of sanctions aimed at isolating the country economically. Energy companies grapple with the prospect of reduced oil and gas supplies. Food producers face a potential shortage of Russian and Ukrainian wheat. Even European football clubs have a big championship game in St. Petersburg to Paris, he stopped sponsoring Russian companies.

The situation is particularly worrying for tech companies. Apple and Google control the software on almost every smartphone in Russia and they have employees there. YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok are popular sites for obtaining information outside of government-run media. Telegram, the messaging application that started in Russia and is now based in Dubai after disagreements with the government, is one of the most popular communication tools in the country.

The new landing law is the Kremlin’s move to counter attempts by tech companies to minimize their physical presence in Russia. The law, which took effect on January 1, requires foreign websites and social media platforms with more than 500,000 daily users to register as legal entities in the country with a local leader. It also requires companies to open an account with Roskomnadzor and create an electronic form for Russian citizens or government officials to contact companies with their complaints.

Creating more local presence makes companies vulnerable to intimidation by the government, which has led some to call it “hostage law,” human rights and civil society groups warned. Last year, Russian authorities threatened to arrest Google and Apple employees for forcing them to remove an app created by supporters of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny.

“The Russian government wants to have embassies of these companies in Russia,” said Aleksandr Litreev, CEO of Solar Labs, a software maker that worked with Mr. Navalny to circumvent online censorship. “They want a way to pull a lever to manipulate information and see how it spreads across the internet.”

government in November. listed The 13 companies that must comply with the new landing law are: Meta, Twitter, TikTok, Likeme, Pinterest, Viber, Telegram, Discord, Zoom, Apple, Google, Spotify and Twitch.

On February 16, a Roskomnadzor official said that companies that do not comply by the end of the month will be penalized. In addition to fines and possible shutdowns or slowdowns, penalties can disrupt ad sales, search engine processing, data collection and payments, according to the law.

According to Russian media, Roskomnadzor vice-president Vadim Subbotin told the Russian Parliament, “We will consider the issue of implementing measures before the end of this month for companies that have not started the ‘landing’ procedure.”

Meta said that while taking steps to comply with the new removal law, the government has not changed the way it reviews requests to remove 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 said they were disappointed that some tech companies, often seen as less loyal to the government in Russia, are complying with the law without public protest.

“The ulterior motive behind the passing of the Descent law is to create the legal basis for extensive online censorship by silencing remaining dissident voices and threatening freedom of expression online,” said Joanna Szymanska, an expert on Russian internet censorship. London-based social group.

Mr Chikov, who represents companies, including Telegram, in lawsuits against the Russian government, said he met with Facebook last year to discuss Russia policies. Facebook executives sought advice on whether to withdraw from Russia, including cutting off access to Facebook and Instagram. The company instead complied with the law.

Mr. Chikov has urged tech companies to speak out against Russian demands to set a broader precedent in combating censorship, even if it results in a ban.

“There were times when big tech companies were leaders not only in terms of technology, but also in terms of civil liberties, freedom of expression and privacy,” he said. “They are now acting more like large transnational corporations securing their business interests.”

Anton Troianovski and Oleg Matsnev contributing reporting.

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