New legislation in Russia that will ban consumer gadgets that do not come preinstalled with Russian software is now being characterized as a “law against Apple,” pitching the U.S. tech giant against Putin in the latest chapter of the emerging technology split between East and West. As I reported last month, the bill, which is due to take effect from July, is being presented to the country as “providing domestic companies with legal mechanisms to promote their programs for Russian users,” but it is not being interpreted that way. And one of the unintended consequences could be the wholesale removal of Apple devices from the market.
In short, the new law means that device manufacturers will need to open their platform to preinstalled software—and that includes smartphones, tablets, computers and smart TVs. “Informally,” Russian weekly The Bell explained last month, it is called the ‘law against Apple’—the company never preinstalls third-party applications in the iOS operating system and warned that if adopted, it could leave the Russian market.”
While the architects behind the law argue that it promotes consumer choice, the irony may well be that major Western tech companies elect to exit the market rather than compromise their policies—especially given the implications that this bill might open a backdoor for Russia to plant surveillance software on consumer devices. Paranoia? Maybe so. But coming in the wake of the Sovereign Internet Law and a farfetched plan to launch a Russian version of Wikipedia, such paranoia does not seem misplaced.
The Bell described this train of restrictive technology legislation as a“marathon of digital repression,” with a government source telling the outlet that this latest bill “is part of a package of other initiatives that came from the Kremlin.” The Ministry of Communications is said to have pushed back on the regulations, pointing to the likely limitations on product choice that might result, only to be overruled by the Kremlin.
Apple’s representatives have reportedly warned Russian officials of those likely implications, with Russian media reporting that they suggested it could lead to the Cupertino giant “revising its business model in Russia.” Officials did not take kindly to the implied threat, pointing to the example of China where restrictions have been accepted by leading Western tech giants, including Apple. But Russia is not China, the business impact on Apple would be much more limited and manageable.
According to The Bell, “officials do not have a clear answer to why the Kremlin is so interested in preinstalling Russian applications on smartphones—who knows what information about Russians is collected by foreign applications, they have undeclared opportunities—for example, they can eavesdrop. If the information will be collected by Yandex or other Russian companies, it will at least remain in the country.”
Apple looks set to fight this new legislation, and seems willing to sacrifice the market to reinforce the point. It’s easy to see why. The company could then find itself subject to similar legislation in multiple markets around the world, with limited controls on the nature, provenance and supply chain integrity of the software being installed.
Behind the headlines, there are some serious geopolitics at play: The tightening links between Russia and China as the two countries push back against their common foe, the United States; the clampdown on Chinese tech, including Huawei, that has promoted Putin to rail against this new “technological war,” in his own words; Russia’s push for much more central control of its technology and information sectors; Putin’s perceived envy of China’s model, where such central control has been deployed behind its “Great Firewall.”
All of which should worry Russia’s tech-savvy population. Because if Russia is intent on moving closer towards China’s restricted and controlled technology market, deploying a digital iron curtain, then the stakes will be much higher than losing access to the latest iPhone or iPad, however sorely they may be missed.