Will Russia Chase Out Big Tech?

The Kremlin’s battle with foreign tech companies didn’t begin in January.

By , policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution and a fellow in the Foreign Policy program’s Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology, and , a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative and a contributor at Wired.
A hand holds a cell phone showing the Netflix app with an alert message.
A hand holds a cell phone showing the Netflix app with an alert message.
A young Russian man shows his cell phone with an alert from Netflix that reads, “We are suspending operations in this region,” in Moscow on March 9. Ulf Mauder/picture-alliance/dpa/Getty Images

Moscow’s long-growing pressure campaign against Big Tech has exploded since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his large-scale, illegal invasion of Ukraine. As Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms take down Russian disinformation, ban state-controlled outlets like RT, and demonetize Russian media, the Kremlin has demanded these companies stop—and threatened action if they don’t.

In recent weeks, for instance, Moscow has blocked Facebook, Twitter, BBC News, ukr.net, and many other websites that spread truthful information about the conflict or took action against Russian propaganda. And it has moved to declare Facebook an “extremist organization” and place restrictions on Instagram. Twitter has responded by releasing a website version designed to bypass the Kremlin’s censorship capabilities, and the BBC has even relaunched World War II-era shortwave radio broadcasts to get information on the war into Russia.

Much is still uncertain, especially as the Russian government continues attacking Ukraine and adapting to Western responses. Yet the Kremlin, by all indications, is not relenting in targeting foreign platforms and websites. Policymakers in the United States and Europe must therefore grapple with the possibility that Putin chases Big Tech out of Russia—and the damage that could do to Russian civil society and the internet’s open, global character.

Moscow’s long-growing pressure campaign against Big Tech has exploded since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his large-scale, illegal invasion of Ukraine. As Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms take down Russian disinformation, ban state-controlled outlets like RT, and demonetize Russian media, the Kremlin has demanded these companies stop—and threatened action if they don’t.

In recent weeks, for instance, Moscow has blocked Facebook, Twitter, BBC News, ukr.net, and many other websites that spread truthful information about the conflict or took action against Russian propaganda. And it has moved to declare Facebook an “extremist organization” and place restrictions on Instagram. Twitter has responded by releasing a website version designed to bypass the Kremlin’s censorship capabilities, and the BBC has even relaunched World War II-era shortwave radio broadcasts to get information on the war into Russia.

Much is still uncertain, especially as the Russian government continues attacking Ukraine and adapting to Western responses. Yet the Kremlin, by all indications, is not relenting in targeting foreign platforms and websites. Policymakers in the United States and Europe must therefore grapple with the possibility that Putin chases Big Tech out of Russia—and the damage that could do to Russian civil society and the internet’s open, global character.

The Kremlin’s battle with foreign tech companies didn’t begin in January. In March 2021, for instance, the Kremlin demanded that Twitter censor information about the protests happening in the country driven by opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s jailing and new information about state corruption, including what appeared to be a secret Putin palace. When the company refused, the Russian government began slowing down (“throttling”) access to Twitter from within Russia. Many other companies, such as YouTube and TikTok, were far more accommodating, removing more protest-related content than Twitter.

Over the past year, a lot has changed: Many Big Tech firms, complying with a law enacted last July, have opened local offices in Russia, which Putin has leveraged as a tool of coercion. Last September, for instance, when Apple and Google refused to censor a tactical voting app Navalny’s allies had created in advance of nationwide Russian elections, the Russian parliament summoned company representatives and threatened them and their staff—explicitly, with jail time, and implicitly, with violence. Meanwhile, the Kremlin sent armed, masked thugs to hang around Google’s Moscow office and to the home—and, subsequently, hotel room—of the company’s top executive in Russia. Both companies then deleted the app.

It’s not clear how many U.S. companies still have local offices running in Russia; for example, recent reports indicated the Russian government will fine Google and Meta (which owns Facebook) for noncompliance, suggesting they may have shut their offices down. Nonetheless, the Kremlin demonstrated its willingness to physically target foreign company personnel.

Now, Western tech companies are taking unprecedented action against the Kremlin over its invasion of Ukraine. In some cases, they are even making their pro-Ukraine position more explicit—with Facebook, for instance, emphasizing empathy for the Ukrainian people in its public statements. And the Russian government, at risk of losing the information war over Ukraine, seems more infuriated than ever by these measures.

Putin, himself, is feeling the heat. Thousands of people have turned out in cities across Russia to protest the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine, risking arrest, detention, and even physical violence. They did so in defiance of two new laws enacted by the Kremlin earlier this month that criminalize independent reporting on and protesting of the war—making it illegal to support sanctions against Russia, call for the end of Russian armed force deployments, or spread so-called fake news about the conflict (which is to say, information that criticizes or reflects poorly on the government).

These protests reflect deep-rooted dissent among parts of the Russian public that threatens Putin’s most prized possession: his grip on power at home. And they come at a time when the U.S. government is seeking to take advantage of growing fissures in Russia, which may reinforce Putin’s long-standing perception that anti-government protests are driven by the United States in an effort to topple his government.

Putin’s concerns about regime stability are the primary driver of this crackdown, but he may also see an opportunity to advance a broader goal: denting the appeal of the open internet. Moscow has justified its draconian internet monitoring regime and strict data localization rules in part by painting the Western web as a threat to Russia. Putin can cynically use recent developments to advance those arguments and draw false equivalencies between U.S. companies’ latest moves against Kremlin propaganda and his own version of information control.

In the next few weeks, the West could see Moscow ratchet up its campaign against Big Tech. The Kremlin will not stop pressuring Western platforms to take down unflattering content, and it will block or throttle companies that refuse. The Russian government could also threaten local staff who reside in Russia, applying penalties such as jail time or even physical harm. Kremlin officials could also conduct cyberoperations against these companies, hacking and releasing unflattering internal documents, for instance, or trying to disrupt Ukrainian organizing and communications efforts on the platforms. It could even deploy the networks of proxies at its disposal—cybercriminals and patriotic hackers, among others—to retaliate.

For platforms, the crosswinds are intense. Enact too few restrictions and they risk appearing as out of step with other Western companies and as advancing their business interests over the public good. Enact too many restrictions and they risk cutting Russian citizens off from online organizing tools and independent information at a time when both are needed while undermining broader principles that support an open, truly global internet.

YouTube—a powerful source of nongovernment news and information—is by far the most popular social media platform in Russia, estimated to be used by more than three quarters of Russian internet users. Anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of Russian internet users access WhatsApp, the encrypted chat app that has proven to be a powerful tool for organizers around the world (and a means by which governments are increasingly able to surveil them despite the encryption).

Then there are the precedent problems. In recent days, companies have moved quickly to remove Kremlin propaganda from their services. Facebook and TikTok have blocked Russian state media in Europe. Google has dropped Kremlin content from Google News after Kremlin propaganda performed well in searches for some key terms related to the conflict. Microsoft has, among other measures, dropped RT from its app store.

Some of these moves were enacted at the request of European governments, though there has been very little transparency about exactly which governments requested which measures. That could make it harder to hold the line against requests to restrict content from other governments in other circumstances. All the while, the companies are racing to comply with Western sanctions, managing complex public relations environments, trying to deal with physical risks to employees and contractors overseas, and always keeping their bottom lines in mind—and how those actions will impact their profits.

The situation poses tricky challenges for Washington too. When the Kremlin threatened Google and Apple employees with jail time and violence last September, the U.S. government was silent. Now, U.S. policymakers, alongside their European counterparts, are outspoken about Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine and Moscow’s weaponization of information and the internet. Yet the landscape is rapidly changing, and in light of a Kremlin that genuinely believes U.S.-based tech platforms are tools of the American state, policymakers will have to decide how, concretely, they will support U.S. companies in the face of Putin’s aggression.

For example, the U.S. government could more vocally criticize the Kremlin’s crackdown of Western platforms that support freedom of information and expression; however, doing so would also carry a very real risk of playing into the Russian government’s perception that those platforms are puppets of foreign governments bent on Putin’s demise.

Through enacting market restrictions, implementing technical blocks, and creating a dysfunctionally hostile operating environment, Putin may well end up pushing Big Tech out of Russia. Success in that endeavor will almost certainly tighten his grip on information at home by making it harder for Russian citizens to access news, information, and means to organize without using technical workarounds. Russians will be forced to rely more on domestic internet platforms like VK, which are far more censored and surveilled by the Kremlin than their Western competitors.

The Russian government is already pushing for a domestic internet, and isolating and blocking Western tech platforms may move the country toward greater internet fragmentation—at least, at the content layer. That will damage the principle of a free, open, and global internet.

However, the outcomes are not black and white, and there are many complicated political, economic, and technological factors to consider in predicting what Putin will do next, how Big Tech will respond, and what (if any) policy action the U.S. government will take to advance its own interests. But the stakes are high, as the global internet’s future and Big Tech and Western governments’ role in fighting digital repression are dependent on how all of these actors choose to proceed.

Jessica Brandt is policy director for the Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technology Initiative at the Brookings Institution and a fellow in the Foreign Policy program’s Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology. Twitter: @jessbrandt

Justin Sherman is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative and a contributor at Wired. Twitter: @jshermcyber

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