Apple halting product sales in Russia after invading Ukraine could have a downside

apple on tuesday announcement a temporary halt to sales of its products in Russia, the latest in a series of actions by tech companies in response to Russia’s large-scale military invasion of Ukraine. (Apple and Google both previously had Restricted Apple Pay and Google Pay in Russia after US sanctions against Russian banks.)

In response to Apple’s announcement on Tuesday, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Minister for Digital Transformation, tweeted: “More sales of @Apple products in Russia! Now @tim_cook let’s finish the job and block access to @AppStore in Russia. They are killing our children, now kill their access!

Apple announced a temporary halt to sales of its products in Russia, the latest in a series of actions by tech companies in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Saturday, Fedorov had asked Big Tech companies to help Ukraine by blocking or limiting access to their services for Russian users. He called out Google CEO Sundar Pichai, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, Apple CEO Tim Cook and others by name. The Ukrainian government has even demand Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the global Internet registry known as ICANN, to effectively isolate Russian sites and Russian users from the global Internet.

googleTwitter and Meta (formerly known as Facebook) have taken different steps to restrict advertising funds for accounts linked to Russian state media. netflix announcement it would refuse to broadcast Russian state television channels in the country. So far, no major tech platform has announced full blocks that, at Fedorov’s request, would prevent users located in Russia from accessing any sites or apps, despite the fact that the blocks of geolocation (access restrictions that target specific geographic locations) are not technically difficult.

Overall, this is a positive sign that tech companies are acting in favor of Ukraine and, by proxy, in favor of a world order that respects the principles of national sovereignty. However, cutting off Russia’s access to apps, sites or even the physical internet should be properly recognized as an extreme measure and not something that tech companies and the international community take lightly. Blocking internet access is a serious – and potentially dangerous – step, and tech companies must be careful not to give up on the long-term goals of a stronger, open, and open international internet.

Restricting the scope of government propaganda is one thing. Blocking individual users from accessing internet services is a whole other game. The internet is more than cat memes and viral dance videos. For billions of people around the world, it is a lifeline, a connection to communities, both local and global.

Internet access restrictions can irritate the population, diminishing public support for the war and for President Vladimir Putin. They could serve as a strategic blow against Russian disinformation campaigns and cyberattacks, as well as against the threat of cyberwarfare. However, sophisticated state actors are unlikely to be deterred by simple bans on the geolocation of users on tech platforms. Besides, blocking Russian access to the Internet will not harm the oligarchs who run the country (some of whom are probably nowhere near currently on Russian territory).

The danger is that we end up isolating the Russian people and pushing the population further into the isolated Russian internet, which the government tightly controls. It would cut the Russian people off from the world and from uncensored information and deny them the technology they need to protest safely and organize for change.

The internet is more than cat memes and viral dance videos. It is a lifeline, a connector for communities, both local and global.

Sometimes extreme measures are necessary, but we need safeguards. Tech companies considering cutting off access to Russia should create transparent and consistent policies that explain their decisions.

Worryingly, no tech company has announced a time limit for access restrictions. They must do so and specify the conditions that would allow them to restore access to Russian users. Such statements would reinforce the idea that they are not just isolating Russia to intimidate the Russian people into living up to the norms of world peace.

The fact that a nation at war is forced to publicly ask for help from tech companies shows the outsized power of these tech companies. This outsized power is even more worrisome given the inconsistent stances the tech industry has taken in past global conflicts. For example, Facebook has been taken to task for its missteps vis-à-vis the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, and Apple has blocked protest apps in Hong Kong and turned out comply with Chinese censorship in general.

We need more than a few big tech companies controlling the internet. We need policies that support startups and competition. This is important not only to enable new market entrants, but also to motivate existing Big Tech companies to push the field further and strengthen America’s leadership in technology. We need policies in the United States that continue to support innovation domestically, including export controls. We also need public alternatives, as well as policies that encourage open source and interoperability standards.

This will not be the last war that threatens the very foundations of the international community. We shouldn’t depend on tech companies to save us. Although many big tech companies are now US-owned, that may not always be the case. It would be madness to pursue policies that assume the United States will always lead the tech industry.

Likewise, it is foolish to assume that today’s world order will be set in stone forever. We need the open internet and international interoperability for any long-term vision of globalization to materialize. The desire for democracy is not unique to Ukraine, Europe or the United States. If we believe in the cause of global democracy and human rights for all, we must continue to fight for an open Internet.

It is good that powerful companies like Apple take a public stand in favor of democracy and peace. They need to take their responsibility seriously and take steps to ensure that Russia’s internet restrictions don’t hurt more than they help. It’s important that we don’t let this moment lead us — paradoxically — into a more divided internet and a more divided world.

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