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Apple has a Vladimir Putin problem

Apple and other big tech companies are increasingly going head-to-head with national governments as they attempt to control the internet within their borders.

Apple has a Vladimir Putin problem
[Source photos: Bagus Hernawan/Unsplash; Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images]

In November 2019, Russian parliament passed what’s become known as the “law against Apple.” The legislation will require all smartphone devices to preload a host of applications that may provide the Russian government with a glut of information about its citizens, including their location, finances, and private communications.

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Apple typically forbids the preloading of third-party apps onto its system’s hardware. But come July 2020, when the law goes into effect, Apple will be forced to quit the country and a market estimated at $3 billion unless it complies. This piece of legislation, along with a controversial law aimed at the construction of a “sovereign internet,” is the latest step in Vladimir Putin’s ongoing encroachment into digital space—and has brought Apple into direct conflict with the autocratic Russian president.

Apple declined to comment on what it plans to do. But while the company has yet to make an official statement, independent Russian outlet the Bell has reported that sources inside Apple have expressed resistance to the new regulations. Making the change would not only require an overhaul of Apple’s existing operating system; it would go against its principle of honoring user privacy over the interests of federal governments. But Apple’s insistence on putting privacy first is gradually pushing the tech giant into a larger, global struggle over data rights and digital sovereignty.

When user privacy clashes with national interests

Apple’s position has also gotten the company into trouble with both the FBI and the Trump administration. Earlier this month, Apple denied Attorney General William Barr’s request to unlock two iPhones connected to the December 2019 shooting at a naval base in Pensacola, Florida, an act suspected to be linked to international terrorist networks. Apple has a history of helping law enforcement with particular cases by sharing information, and even reportedly dropped its plans to encrypt iPhone backup files stored in the cloud. But while creating a backdoor that official bodies such as the FBI and police departments could use to access encrypted devices would expedite investigations such as the one in Pensacola, Apple says it would set a disturbing precedent.

“We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor for just the good guys,” the company said in an official statement. “Backdoors can also be exploited by those who threaten our national security and the data security of our customers.”

We have always maintained there is no such thing as a backdoor for just the good guys.”

Apple

When the “law against Apple” was passed in Russia back in November, experts expressed concern that the preloaded apps would pose just as real a threat as an official backdoor. Last week, the Russian Federal Antimonopoly Service published a list of which applications will be required: Among the programs are government-produced apps for paying taxes and fines, as well as banking, navigation, and social media platforms with links to official bodies. These would have the potential to collect and send data related to finances, location, communications, and more, all without direct user permission.

This worries digital rights activists such as Artem Kozlyuk, founder of the NGO Roskomsvoboda (short for “Russian media freedom”). He opposes the law, telling the Moscow Times that “devices are already stuffed with a huge number of services . . . a number of which can secretly collect information: location, tools and services being used.” What makes this dangerous, Kozlyuk said, is that users have no knowledge of nor control over which data are collected and used by Russia’s government.

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Russia’s interests lie in trying to exert autocratic control over its citizens, which appears to be fundamentally at odds with Apple and its mission to maintain privacy protections for its users—no matter where they’re located in the world, and regardless of what the government is demanding. The “law against Apple” is an example of how trillion-dollar tech companies are running up against the prerogatives of the nations in which they operate, but that hasn’t stopped Apple from trying to find a compromise.

A solution for Apple, an uproar in nearby Ukraine

Perhaps in an attempt to pave the way for a win-win outcome this summer, Apple made a controversial concession to the Kremlin. Just weeks after the “law against Apple” was passed, the company’s mapping and weather apps began showing the Crimean peninsula, which the international community considers to be Ukrainian territory, as part of the Russian Federation. This only happens when users open these Apple applications inside Russia, but it represents a major break with international consensus.

Apple made these changes in response to another law that declared that companies who do not show Crimea as Russian territory will be prosecuted for violating the Russian constitution. (Google, for its part, identifies Crimea as part of Russia for Google Maps users within the country.) Apple’s decision to adhere to this law provides some evidence that the company may not be truly willing to leave the Russian market.

Apple’s concession also indicates that Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian technology policies are bearing fruit. Since 2014, Putin has aimed to reshape Europe’s geopolitics through tactics that depend on a high degree of digital control and coordination. His successes include the extended propaganda campaigns preceding the bloody war in Ukraine’s Donbas region, as well as alleged election interference in Europe and the United States. Digital space and tools have proved to be valuable assets in hybrid warfare, and so any sign of Western capitulation to Moscow’s strategy, whether from a government or a tech giant, is worrying for the vulnerable nations in Russia’s orbit.

Ukraine is particularly sensitive to any attempts to appease Putin. Once news of Apple’s border policy went public, Ukranian social media spiraled into overdrive, with calls for a boycott putting to rest any possibility that Apple’s concession would go unnoticed. Olga Ivanova, a civil society activist working on social cohesion and displacement issues in Ukraine, says that social media was full of the sense that “our pain and tragedy is being traded for access to the Russian market.” Even Vadym Prystaiko, the country’s foreign minister, criticized the tech giant on Twitter for not giving “a damn” about the country.

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While Apple officials met with Prystaiko last week at Davos, a possible attempt to smooth things over, the company’s decision may have contributed to Ukraine’s isolation at a critical moment. In early December, mere weeks after the border scandal, the first meeting between Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, the newly-elected Ukrainian president, took place in Paris. According to Ivanova, the United States, typically a strong Ukrainian ally, was too distracted by impeachment hearings to support the new president in Paris. Apple’s concession comes as one more blow to a country feeling increasingly abandoned by the West.

A new age of Big Tech governance

Apple’s ability to impact the ongoing crisis in Ukraine fits into a wider trend of how large tech companies’ choices have increasingly geopolitical implications. These decisions can even threaten a given nation’s economic or national security interests, in part because tech companies’ products are unique, popular, and sometimes inescapable. While Apple’s “solution” was causing unintentional waves in nearby Ukraine, companies such as Google were also flexing their muscles abroad in the service of their interests.

In December 2019, Google effectively suspended service for Android systems in Turkey over the nation’s requirement that Google provide more space for competitors, such as the Russian search engine Yandex, to operate on Android devices in the country. Monopoly critic Matt Stoller compared the action to “using financial sanctions recklessly.”

Previously, large tech companies would only take such large-scale action at the request of government officials, such as when Google halted Android updates to Huawei devices in compliance with an executive order from the White House last year. Stoller says that this is the first time that Google has unilaterally suspended its services within a country. He adds that it’s dangerous when companies reimagine their relationship to governments as one of being “a partner,” replacing the former model where sovereign states had ultimate control over the policies of businesses operating within them.

Countries and tech companies are engaged in a struggle to define how sovereignty applies to the internet.

This may be the very reason why nations such as Russia are passing a host of laws to exert control over cyberspace. Countries and tech companies are engaged in a struggle to define how sovereignty—which typically refers to a country’s ability to govern itself without outside interference—applies to the internet. And while Turkey may not have the clout to challenge companies such as Google or Apple directly, Russia very well might. In 2016, for example, the Russian state agencies responsible for regulating communications blocked companies such as  LinkedIn and Pornhub for their refusal to host data on servers located inside the Russian Federation. In 2017, the Kremlin infamously attempted to block the popular messaging app Telegram for its refusal to hand over encryption keys. Russia’s current struggle with Apple is merely the latest in what’s proved to be a long-term bid for digital control.

In its public statements on the Pensacola incident, Apple has attempted to claim the moral high ground by saying that any precedent it sets by unlocking phones or creating backdoors would have a negative effect on its operations in other, more autocratic parts of the world. But at the same time, Apple has compromised with the Kremlin by adhering to its demands around Crimea—leaving it on the wrong end of Putin’s contentious geopolitical maneuverings and creating a PR disaster.

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Ultimately, when the July deadline for the “law against Apple” comes around, Tim Cook’s decision to either leave potential profit on the table or to uphold Apple’s principles will help set a precedent for global politics, privacy, and digital sovereignty. Apple may not be asking for that role, but, in this fraught age of global technology, the company may find itself occupying it regardless.


Josh Nadeau is a Canadian journalist based in St. Petersburg who covers the intersection of Russia, technology, and culture. He has written for The Economist, Atlas Obscura, and The Outline.

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