Civil society groups have warned that companies will be forced to abide by a patchwork of laws and regulations that run the risk of making the internet more fragmented, where access to information and products depends on where people are . Businesses have to weigh the value of having their services available in a country like Russia, where they are considered more independent than local tech platforms, against the cost of a complete exit, as Google did in China.
The pressure on Silicon Valley to block certain content on their platforms isn’t just coming from more authoritarian governments. In the United States and Europe, policy makers are calling for companies to do more to combat hate speech, misinformation, and other harmful content. Republicans in the US argue that they are being censored online.
In Russia, the national internet regulator Roskomnadzor has repeatedly called for companies to remove certain content under threat of fines or restricted access to their products. The government says American internet companies are interfering in Russia’s internal affairs by allowing anti-Kremlin activists to freely use their platforms.
The Russian government had been more and more open in recent days to prevent the app from being used with detention threats. “With the participation of Apple and Google, specific crimes are being committed, the extent of which could increase in the coming days,” said Vladimir Jabarov, a member of the Russian upper house of parliament, on Thursday. “People who help circumvent the responsibility of their parent companies on the territory of the Russian Federation will be punished.”
It remains to be seen whether the admission by Apple and Google on Friday turns into a turning point in how energetically American tech giants are resisting pressure from the Kremlin. As Russia cracks down on dissenting opinions this year, the most popular Silicon Valley platforms remain open to the public so journalists and activists can continue to spread their message. On YouTube, for example, the Navalny team’s investigations into corruption among the Russian elite regularly receive millions of clicks.
But Friday’s move could encourage the Kremlin, as well as governments in other parts of the world, to use threats of prosecuting employees to put pressure on companies. It is a test of Silicon Valley ideals around free speech and an open internet that are weighed not only against profit, but also against the safety of their workers.
Removal of Facebook and Twitter posts, YouTube videos, and other internet content happens fairly regularly as companies try to comply with local laws around the world. In China, Apple removed apps that conflicted with state censorship, including software that would give Chinese users access to the open global internet. A 2016 court ruling in Russia led Apple and Google to remove LinkedIn from their app stores after LinkedIn failed to comply with a law requiring data about Russian users to be stored within national borders.