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Should the technology stay or go to Russia?

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The international business community is leaving Russia. Global tech companies such as Google, Facebook, and Apple mostly remain open to it.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the energy giants announced their intention to abandon oil and gas extraction projects in the country. Several automakers have said they will stop making or selling vehicles in Russia. The banks have largely shut Russia out of the global financial system.

But Russians still use their iPhones, surf YouTube, and chat on WhatsApp and Telegram. That could change. The Russian government is trying to tighten its control over foreign tech companies. And Apple said on Tuesday it had suspended sales of its products in Russia.

A tricky question remains: is Ukraine and global democracy better served if key tech services stay or, as Ukrainian leaders have argued, if Russia is treated as a pariah and cut off from popular digital services? Today’s newsletter will outline the pros and cons.

First, the history of technology in conflict zones:

My colleagues Adam Satariano and Sheera Frenkel wrote this week that Ukraine provides an opportunity for tech companies to “show that they can use their technology for good in ways not seen since the Arab Spring of 2011, when networks have connected activists and been hailed as an instrument of democracy.”

In the years since these citizen uprisings, tech companies have sometimes failed to dedicate the resources and care needed to decisively defend those caught in conflict zones or stuck at the mercy of autocratic governments in countries like the United States. Myanmar, Ethiopia and Afghanistan.

Allies of Aleksei A. Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition politician, last year criticized Apple and Google for complying with government demands to scrap an app meant to coordinate protest voting in elections Russians.

This time looks different. Tech companies seem more willing to take sides and offer support to Ukraine.

The power to leave:

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukrainian Minister of Digital Transformation, used his Twitter account to shame Facebook, Google, Apple and Netflix for stopping or limiting their technology services in Russia. This, Fedorov said, could incite Russians to rebel against their government’s invasion.

“In 2022, modern technology may be the best answer to tanks” and other weapons, he said. wrote in a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Social media in Russia and abroad are also hotbeds of pro-Kremlin propaganda that portrays Ukrainians as aggressors and misleads citizens about their government’s actions in Ukraine.

Why staying might help:

David Kaye, a law professor and former United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, told me that at least right now, it would be a mistake for tech companies to leave Russia.

Kaye said the harm caused by false or distorted information circulating online in Russia was relatively minor compared to the productive ways in which Russian citizens, activists and journalists used 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 also use social media to ridicule Russian troops, rally foreigners to their cause, and share security information.)

“While I totally agree that American and international companies should resist engaging with Russia at this time, there are companies that are providing communications to people who really need it,” he said. Kaye.

Nothing is simple in war, and Kaye quickly added, “I realize there may be downsides to this and we need to think about that.”

The risks involved:

By supporting US or European governments against Russia, there is a risk that companies will appear as a puppet of the West. This could be counterproductive for Russian dissidents and journalists, and damage relationships for tech companies in other countries.

While staying could put employees of tech companies at risk. Russia is among countries establishing so-called disembarkation laws that make local employees of foreign companies more vulnerable to fines, arrests or other penalties if their companies fail to comply with government requirements.

In the end, it may not be the big tech companies that decide their future in Russia. It has been difficult for Russians to use Facebook and Twitter because the government has slowed down the internet speed to these websites and apps. Adam said YouTube might be next.

The Kremlin, Adam said, “is more likely to make the ‘should we leave’ decision” for tech companies.

There is also a related and difficult question, which I leave aside today, about what big tech companies should do outside Russia – especially with Russian state media such as RT or other propaganda sources. Twitter on Wednesday became the latest internet company to restrict Russian state media inside the European Union.

A final thought:

I’m often wary of treating tech companies as a special species that gets a pass from the normal rules for businesses. But as this war shows, global information and communications services are really not like cars or barrels of oil.

Tech companies are for-profit corporations that aren’t accountable to the public, yet they’ve grown so powerful that they now serve as mini ministries of foreign affairs.

  • Coders of the world: Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal write that the Russian invasion threatens the lives and jobs of Ukraine’s large tech workforce whose software is used around the world by popular video games, major banks and corporations. Car manufacturers. (Subscriptions may be required.)

  • The good and bad of TikTok in wartime: The stream of war footage in the short video app has been an important way for foreigners to see and understand what is happening in Ukraine. But Wired says TikTok’s immediacy, reach and computer sorting make it especially difficult to separate truth from fiction in times of war. (Subscription may be required.)

    Related: An online video of Zhenya Perepelitsa, a Ukrainian soldier, reciting a Persian love poem has touched Iranians and Ukrainians (and me).

  • Fitbit, the Google-owned internet-connected gadget company, has recalled more than one million of its smartwatches. Fitbit said it has received more than 100 reports of burns caused by overheating batteries in its Ionic watches.

Zaila Vanguard, Scripps National Spelling Bee champion, was also a star at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. She’s just as great on a float as she spells and plays basketball.

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