Written by Shira Ovide
The international business community is getting out of Russia. Global tech companies including Google, Facebook and Apple remain mostly open for business there.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, energy giants announced plans to ditch projects to dig up oil and gas in the country. Several automakers said that they would stop making or selling vehicles in Russia. Banks have largely shut Russia out of the global financial system.
But Russians are still swiping their iPhones, surfing YouTube and chatting on WhatsApp and Telegram. That could change. The Russian government is trying to tighten its control of foreign tech companies. And Apple said Tuesday that it paused sales of its products in Russia.
A tricky question remains: Are Ukraine and global democracy better served if major tech services stay, or — as Ukrainian leaders have pleaded — if Russia is treated as a pariah and cut off from popular digital services? We’ll lay out the pros and cons.
First, tech’s history in conflict zones:
My New York Times colleagues Adam Satariano and Sheera Frenkel wrote this week that Ukraine provides an opportunity for tech companies to “show they can use their technology for good in a way not seen since the Arab Spring in 2011, when social media connected activists and was cheered as an instrument for democracy.”
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 stuck at the mercy of autocratic governments in countries such as Myanmar, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.
Allies of Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition politician, last year criticized Apple and Google for complying with government demands to take down an app meant to coordinate protest voting in Russian elections.
This time seems to be different. Tech companies seem more willing to take sides and offer their support to Ukraine.
The power of leaving:
Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, has been using his Twitter account to shame Facebook, Google, Apple and Netflix to stop or limit their tech services in Russia. Doing so, Fedorov 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.
Social media in Russia, and outside the country, are also hotbeds of pro-Kremlin propaganda that portrays Ukrainians as the aggressors and deceives citizens about their government’s actions in Ukraine.
Why staying could help:
David Kaye, a law professor and former United Nations special rapporteur on free expression, told me that at least right now, it would be a mistake for tech companies to quit Russia.
Kaye said that the harm of false or distorted information 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 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.)
“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,” Kaye said.
Nothing is simple in war, and Kaye quickly added, “I realize there may be downsides to this and we need to think it through.”
The risks involved:
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, the big tech companies may not be the ones deciding on their future in Russia. It has been difficult for Russians to use Facebook and Twitter because the government has been slowing down internet speeds to those websites and apps. Adam said that YouTube could be next.
The Kremlin, Adam said, “is more likely to make the ‘should we leave’ decision” for the tech companies.
There’s also a related and difficult question, which I’m leaving aside today, about what the major technology companies should do outside Russia — particularly with Russian state media outlets such as RT or other sources of propaganda. Twitter on Wednesday became the latest internet company to restrict Russian state media outlets inside the European Union.
One last thought:
I’m often wary of treating technology companies as a special species that gets a pass from normal rules for corporations. But as this war is showing, global information and communication services really aren’t like cars or barrels of oil.
Tech companies are for-profit companies that are not accountable to the public, and yet they have become so powerful that they now serve as mini foreign ministries.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.