This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. Here is a collection of past columns.
The international business community is getting out of Russia. But tech companies including Google, Facebook and Apple have mostly been trying to stay open for business there.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, energy giants announced they were ditching projects to dig up oil and gas in the country. Automakers said that they would stop making or selling vehicles in Russia. Banks have largely shut Russia out of the global financial system. Formula 1 racecars will not be zooming around Sochi as planned, nor will British satellites hitch a ride on Russian rockets.
Global tech companies have chosen to continue letting Russians download iPhone apps, surf YouTube and message on WhatsApp and Telegram. Russia’s government, however, is tightening access to news, information and technologies in an effort to deny to its citizens the realities of its invasion of Ukraine. On Friday, Russia declared it would block access to Facebook, and late in the day reports circulated that Twitter and YouTube might also be blocked.
That is the choice global tech powers face 10 days into this war. Try to stay? Leave on principle, like others did? And what does it mean about their place in the world if it’s not their choice at all?
Ukrainian leaders have pleaded with major digital services to treat Russia as a pariah and cut it off from 21st-century digital life. The companies, for the most part, had decided that Ukraine and global democracy were better served if they stayed on.
Now, Vladimir V. Putin appears to have made the choice for some of them.
The fact that digital access is a tool of aggression in conflict shows that whether the tech companies, governments and the public like it or not, a handful of corporate digital powers are geopolitical players. When tanks begin to roll, it’s a call to action for the United Nations, the heads of central banks — and the chief executives of Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft.
One of the earliest inklings of this power was the Arab Spring movements in the early 2010s. Activists in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya relied on U.S. social media sites and smartphones to share images of brutality by their governments against anti-regime protesters and to organize the logistics of street campaigns.
An Egyptian-born tech worker, Wael Ghonim, created a Facebook page to memorialize a man who had been beaten to death by Egyptian police. It bubbled into massive rallies in Tahrir Square in Cairo. One Tunisian man broadcast his location in the app Foursquare when he was held by government forces and feared that he would disappear.
It was the collective might of citizens, not Mark Zuckerberg, that was the instrument of political change. But the Arab Spring was a high point of tech optimism when it seemed as though the internet handed power to the people to disrupt corrupt institutions, and tech companies were on their side.
In the years since those citizen uprisings, tech companies have sometimes failed to devote the resources and care to decisively stand up for people caught in conflict zones or trapped at the mercy of autocratic governments.
In 2018, the United Nations concluded that Myanmar’s military had turned Facebook into a propaganda tool for genocide. The company, now called Meta, acknowledged that it didn’t do enough to prevent its site from being abused to incite violence. Authorities in Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Somalia have used Twitter and Facebook to smear or harass critics of their governments. “Facebook broke democracy in many countries around the world,” Maria Ressa, the Filipino journalist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, has said.
In Russia, two-thirds or more of internet-connected people use YouTube, which is owned by Google, and WhatsApp, the messaging app owned by Meta. Instagram and Telegram are common, too, according to the research firm Insider Intelligence.
Facebook, Twitter and particularly YouTube have been important outlets for Russian government critics, including the jailed opposition politician Aleksei A. Navalny. But last year, allies of Mr. Navalny criticized Apple and Google for complying with government demands to take down an app meant to coordinate protest voting in Russian elections.
At the time, people close to those companies said that they had little choice but to comply with Russian authorities who claimed the app was illegal.
Last month’s invasion of Ukraine seemed to make it easier for tech companies to take sides. The international community has almost universally treated Russia as a hostile aggressor.
And while in other conflict zones the internet companies have sometimes been caught with few staff who speak the language, most do have teams who are able to work in Ukrainian and Russian.
Facebook and Twitter posted instructions in Ukrainian coaching locals to secure or deactivate their accounts to protect themselves from Russian threats. Google Maps stopped showing traffic information inside Ukraine out of concerns that it could create safety risks by showing where people were gathering.
Still, some Ukrainian officials are urging foreign tech companies to do far more than that. They want companies to go dark in Russia. Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, has been using his Twitter account to shame Facebook, Google, Apple, Netflix and video game companies to stop or limit their tech services in Russia. Doing so, Mr. Fedorov has said, might shake up Russians to rebel against their government’s invasion.
“In 2022, modern technology is perhaps the best answer to the tanks” and other weapons, he wrote in a letter to Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook.
Apple and Microsoft in recent days said they would pause sales of their products in Russia. Cogent Communications, a U.S. company that provides essential plumbing for the internet, planned to sever relations with Russian customers, The Washington Post reported on Friday. The decision could make it more difficult for Russians to go online without interruption.
Google also suspended all advertising in Russia after the country’s internet regulator demanded that the company stop what it said were commercial messages that misinformed citizens about the invasion. Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, tweeted on Friday that the company would try to restore its services from the Russian government’s blockade so that Russians could “safely and securely express themselves and organize for action.”
David Kaye, a law professor and a former United Nations special rapporteur on free expression, said that, at the moment, it would be a mistake for tech companies to completely quit Russia.
Mr. Kaye said that the harm of pro-Kremlin propaganda that is circulating online in Russia was relatively minor compared with the productive ways that Russian citizens, activists and journalists were using YouTube, Telegram, Signal, Instagram and smartphones from Google and Apple.
These technologies help expose Russians to information beyond government propaganda and contradict the state narrative of the war. Ukrainians are also using social media to ridicule Russian troops, rally foreigners to their cause and share safety information. Ukrainian volunteers have organized to flood Russian government websites with spam. For a time, Russians looking up Moscow landmarks in Google Maps were bombarded with photos of bombed homes and injured civilians in Ukraine.
“While I’m totally sympathetic with the idea that U.S. and international companies should be resisting engagement with Russia right now, there are some companies that are providing communications to people who really need it,” Mr. Kaye said.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know
Nothing is simple in war, and Mr. Kaye quickly added, “I realize there may be downsides to this and we need to think it through.”
In backing U.S. or European governments against Russia, there’s a risk that companies appear to be a puppet of the West. That might be counterproductive for Russian dissidents and journalists, and hurt tech companies’ relationships in other countries.
Whereas staying could put tech companies’ employees in harm’s way. Russia is among the countries that are establishing so-called landing laws that make local employees of foreign companies more vulnerable to fines, arrests or other punishments if their companies don’t comply with government demands. Ultimately it may be the Kremlin’s choice, not Silicon Valley executives, whether digital service stay or go.
For decades, the U.S. technology industry has often described what it does as a more efficient and enlightened form of American capitalism — capped by Google’s former informal mantra, “don’t be evil” — said Margaret O’Mara, a professor at the University of Washington who researches the history of technology. And executives have used those qualities as a cudgel to argue for more hands off government regulation and taxation.
Tech companies secured special tax breaks for their research and development spending and for venture capital investments in start-ups. In the 1990s, an influential manifesto by John Perry Barlow declared that governments have no sovereignty over the internet. More recently, Zuckerberg has testified in Congress that putting guardrails on U.S. tech titans would provide an opening for Chinese technology to take over the world. How exactly that might happen was never explained.
In other words, the normal rules shouldn’t apply to them. It’s grating for tech companies to be treated as a special species of corporation. But as this invasion is showing, global information and communication services really aren’t like cars or barrels of oil. War is making the argument better than any imperious C.E.O. ever could.
Before we go …
Coders to the world: Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal write that the Russian invasion threatens the lives and jobs of Ukraine’s large technology work force whose software is used globally by popular video games, big banks and car manufacturers. (Subscriptions may be required.)
The good and bad of TikTok in war: The stream of war footage in the short video app has been an important way for outsiders to see and understand what is happening in Ukraine. But Wired says that TikTok’s immediacy, reach and computer-generating sorting make it particularly difficult to separate truth from fiction in war. (A subscription may be required.)
Related: An online video of Zhenya Perepelitsa, a Ukrainian soldier, reciting from a Persian love poem struck a nerve with Iranians and Ukrainians (and me).
Fitbit, the internet-connected gadget company owned by Google, recalled more than one million of its smart watches. Fitbit said it received more than 100 reports of burn injuries caused by overheating batteries in its Ionic watches.
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