Last week, Russia banned Facebook and Twitter within its borders. The week, it barred its citizens from using Instagram. But it turns out that Vladimir Putin’s regime has been cracking down on US tech companies for a while now.
A new Washington Post report recounts how Russian agents showed up to the home of a top Google executive in Moscow in 2021, demanding that an app that had angered Putin be taken down within 24 hours. If Google didn’t comply, they said she’d be jailed.
Google checked the executive into a hotel where the company believed she would be safer, surrounded by hotel staff and guests. The agents, believed to be from the FSB, the country’s counter-intelligence and security successor to the Soviet KGB, then showed up at the hotel and indicated that she would still be arrested if the app didn’t come down.
An Apple executive was similarly threatened, according to the report.
Within hours, the pro-voting app that was being utilized by Putin’s most prominent political opponent, Alexei Navalny, was removed from both the Apple and Google app stores.
At a different point last year, the son of a Kremlin insider became the CEO Russia’s most popular social media platform, VK. Putin allies had previously taken ownership over the company in 2014.
“Every meaningful, practical avenue for dissent is being systematically shut down,” Pavel Khodorkovsky, founder of the New York-based Institute for Modern Russia, told the Post.
Putin has long employed increasingly authoritarian modes of political control within his own borders, but the moves signaled that he was taking a more aggressive approach than before in policing the flows of information in Russia. Previously, companies had played a delicate game with Putin and the Kremlin, making various concessions in order to keep access to the Russian market while rejecting more aggressive government demands to do things like store data collected from their Russian users on Russia-based servers where they could be more prone to a government intrusion.
Russia’s Ukraine invasion has impelled tech companies to draw firmer lines in the sand, which has corresponded with Putin banning many of them in response.