Why Russian people need tech companies to stay, not withdraw: It’s terrifying ‘how dark that place could become’

Technology

People gather to stage anti-war protest in Saint-Petersburg, Russia on March 1, 2022.
Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

As the U.S. and Europe impose economic sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and businesses from McDonald’s to Starbucks shut down operations in the country, tech platforms must weigh a more complex equation.

Unlike certain sanctions or business closures made to primarily hurt the Russian regime, limiting access to tech platforms — whether by force or choice — could have massive effects on the Russian people and their ability to access reliable information that contradicts the Kremlin “special military operation” narrative.

“I think tech companies are different from other companies doing business in Russia, because we do have a clear interest in having them stay,” said Joanna Szostek, a political communication lecturer at the University of Glasgow. She praised Western companies in other industries for pulling their goods and services from Russia, but said it doesn’t work the same way when it comes to services like social media and search engines.

In many ways, the tech industry is facing a new version of the fundamental dilemma it’s grappled with for years: the balance between connecting disparate parts of the world and risking the spread of disinformation.

Though some in Ukraine have called on tech companies to stop services in Russia to oppose the war, experts in internet freedom and Russian censorship say such action could be counterproductive. For truth to prevail inside Russia, platforms may have to take calculated risks to maintain their services in the country, experts say.

“I think there’s a very strong case for trying to do everything possible to keep those accessible for as long as possible,” Szostek said. “And if that means sort of continuing to do some kind of business in Russia, then, so be it. Because, the idea of Russia getting completely trapped behind a sort of wall with no information at all getting through, I mean, it’s quite terrifying really, how dark that place could become.”

A delicate balance

Russia has tightened its control over its internet. Authorities have blocked access to Meta-owned Facebook and restricted access to Twitter.
Nurphoto | Getty Images

Tech platforms operating in Russia are confronting a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, companies like Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, Twitter and Google’s YouTube don’t want to become vessels for Kremlin propaganda. But on the other, the absence of their services could leave an information vacuum likely to be filled by disinformation from the Russian government and state-owned media.

The situation these companies face is an iteration of the question they’ve struggled to answer in the wake of their growing power in the past few decades: does the benefit of free and fast-spreading information outweigh the risks that their platforms can be used to disperse disinformation and stoke violence?

The same question has haunted the companies during times of democratic elections, social upheaval and throughout the pandemic.

This time, the conflict is also shedding light on just how valuable social media and internet access can be in the face of a repressive regime. Unlike in China, where Western social media companies largely don’t operate within the Great Firewall, platforms like Facebook and Instagram do have a presence in Russia.

That’s made their restriction by the Russian government significant, since those platforms have served as a way for Russian people to access the truth.

Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation Mykhailo Fedorov has repeatedly called on tech platforms to end their business dealings in Russia. He’s pleaded to top executives at Amazon, Google, Microsoft and others to suspend their services in Russia to isolate the country from major modern digital services.

“The Ukrainians have also suggested that we remove access to Facebook and Instagram in Russia,” Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, said on Twitter in February. “However, people in Russia are using FB and IG to protest and organize against the war and as a source of independent information.”

“We believe turning off our services would silence important expression at a crucial time,” he added.

Some Western services have heeded calls to shut down business in Russia or blamed the potential risks of ongoing operations for their decisions to scale down. Two U.S. internet carriers, Lumen and Cogent, cut service to Russia in the wake of the war, citing security concerns and sanctions. Amazon Web Services said it would block new sign-ups from Russia. And other companies like Apple and Google said they would stop sales in the country.

But internet freedom advocates and experts on Russia’s digital landscape warn some shutdowns could be counterproductive, cutting off average Russian people from truthful information that could stoke opposition to the Kremlin.

In a letter addressed to U.S. President Joe Biden, dozens of civil society groups cautioned against cutting off Russia from the internet. They asked that the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control explicitly tell software and communications providers they will not violate sanctions by continuing their service in Russia by issuing a general license. They suggested that some voluntary decisions to cut internet services to Russia could be motivated by an attempt to avoid sanctions.

“Overly broad restrictions on the access of the Russian people to the internet would further isolate the embattled pro-democracy and anti-war activists, and impede the ability of NGOs, human rights groups, journalists, and attorneys inside and outside Russia to provide critical information to citizens about the current state of affairs and their rights,” the groups wrote. “These actions would inadvertently speed up what the Kremlin has set out to achieve through its ‘sovereign internet’ tools – a complete and total control of information space inside Russia.”

Adrian Shahbaz, director of technology and democracy for nonpartisan advocacy group Freedom House, which signed the letter, said tech platforms should decide how to handle the balance “on a case-by-case basis through consultation with experts from civil society.” Tech platforms must understand how their actions can impact human rights, he said.

Tech companies should consider the least harmful way they could comply with government requests if doing so is necessary to maintaining service in the country, Shahbaz said. For example, a platform asked to remove a certain post could consider doing so only from that particular jurisdiction, so it could still be accessible via a virtual private network.

Andrew Sullivan, CEO of the nonprofit Internet Society, said he is skeptical of even well-intentioned restrictions on the internet, warning that those with resources are often able to find ways around such limits.

“That’s always the danger, but it’s a really big danger with the internet because the advantages are already stacked in favor of the people who are in control,” he said.

Some internet services, like Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, have committed to trying to keep their services as open in Russia as possible. But that also means making tough calls about what compromises are needed to ensure continued service. When Meta refused to stop labeling state-owned media and fact-check their content, according to the company, Russian censors restricted Facebook and later Instagram.

“Facebook would probably not have been banned right away … if they stopped fact-checking Russian state-controlled media,” said Yevgeniy Golovchenko, a disinformation and censorship researcher at the University of Copenhagen. “But the question is, now that you show the Russian government that they can push Western media to do what Russian authorities want, what will be the next request?”

Golovchenko envisions two possible and opposite outcomes if Western social media were to disappear from Russia all at once. The optimistic view is that Russian people would take the mass exit as a sign that something is wrong and that they should dig deeper into what’s happening outside their country. The pessimistic take is that it could further entrench Russian state-owned TV networks, where many Russians already get their news.

Still, there could be cases where some may consider it preferable to scale back on certain information altogether. Lev Gershenzon, former news director of Russian search engine Yandex, publicly called on the company’s current executives to remove or change its top news feature on the home page so it would no longer present a watered-down version of the conflict in Ukraine. He suggested that if executives couldn’t change the content, removing it altogether would be better than leaving it up.

“I’m pretty sure that no information in this situation is better than some information,” he said in an interview. “If some tens of millions of people suddenly notice that there is no news block on the main page of their most visited portal, some of them, hopefully, would start asking some questions.”

Russia’s censorship history

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with government members via a video link in Moscow, Russia March 10, 2022.
Mikhail Klimentyev | Sputnik | Reuters

The Russian government has been laying the groundwork for a broader crackdown on internet platforms for years. But unlike China, it doesn’t have the same closed infrastructure that could lead to a swift clampdown.

“Technically, it’s very, very similar to other parts of the internet, whereas China is not,” said Sullivan of the Internet Society. That makes it more technically difficult for Russia to block access to certain parts of the web, he said.

At the same time, Russia does not have sufficient alternatives to many popular social media and messaging services, which could be part of the reason it’s continued to allow access to services like Meta’s WhatsApp and Google’s YouTube, while restricting Facebook, for example, for which a Russian alternative does exist.

There are two reasons that make it difficult for the Russian government to ban certain popular services, according to Marielle Wijermars, assistant professor of cybersecurity and politics at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. First, the Russian government uses platforms like YouTube to disseminate its own propaganda. And second, it monitors social media platforms for signals about sensitive topics and potential unrest.

Blocking access to a popular service also risks generating a backlash, which means the government must believe the benefits outweigh the risks in doing so, Wijermars said.

She pointed to the Russian government’s decision to block Telegram in 2018, which it reversed just a couple of years later after users found it was easy to circumvent the ban on the popular messaging app. The measure also angered many users in Russia. Banning other services risks doing the same and could impact businesses that rely on platforms like Instagram to sell or market their goods.

YouTube is among the most popular social media platforms in Russia, making the question of whether the government will move to ban it especially significant.

“There’s been a calculation that no leader wants to be the one responsible for blocking access to tools that millions of their supporters use,” Shahbaz said.

Censorship circumvention

Police officers detain a woman during a protest against Russian military action in Ukraine, in central Saint Petersburg on March 13, 2022.
Afp | Getty Images

There are still ways to get around censorship rules in Russia, especially because its infrastructure is not as closed as China’s.

Between the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 and March 8, the top ten VPNs in Apple and Google’s mobile app stores in Russia saw nearly 6 million downloads, according to data compiled by SensorTower for CNBC.

Two lawmakers in the U.S. recently introduced a new bill to aid efforts to support censorship circumvention technology in Russia. The Internet Freedom and Operations (INFO) Act, introduced by Sens. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., would authorize funds for internet freedom programs to run through the Department of State and USAID and dedicate $50 million to internet freedom and circumvention technologies through the U.S. Agency for Global Media and affiliates.

The bill builds on the pair’s earlier Open Technology Fund Authorization Act, which similarly authorized funds to support internet freedom under repressive regimes. That bill passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act last year, and its authors have credited it for helping people in Cuba get connected and organize online after the government restricted internet access.

Blackburn, in a phone interview with CNBC, said people in Cuba largely found links to VPNs and through word-of-mouth. She said there’s always the potential for danger under a repressive regime in accessing restricted technology and speaking out but that she saw people in Cuba are willing to take risks “for their shot at freedom.”

Wijermars warned that just because it’s possible for people in Russia to access foreign information through VPNs doesn’t mean all or even most will.

“The smaller group that already was interested in this kind of news, that already was critical of the government, already was consuming independent new sources, they will need to use a VPN to continue consuming those news sources,” she said. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the rest of the Russian population is now suddenly discovering it.”

Putin has been moving Russia toward isolation for years and Wijermars said the current conflict has only accelerated internet trends in the region.

“I just hope that democratic governments and international companies don’t inadvertently speed that up,” Shahbaz said.

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