Apple caves to the Kremlin, for a minute
When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, Silicon Valley companies responded with uncharacteristic speed and conviction. Meta, Google and Twitter (back when it was still Twitter and still had some principles) put out statements declaring their support for Ukraine and their intentions to go after Russian state propaganda on their platforms. Even Apple — with its sleek products that seem to always know what we need before we need it and its notoriously tight-lipped overlords — took a stand, suspending iPhone sales and Apple Pay.
But Apple has kept its services available for iPhone and Mac users inside the country, and the App Store — iPhone users’ window to much of what the internet has to offer — has become a place where Russians can find some pockets of information not tailored by the Kremlin. In April 2022, the embattled “Smart Vote” app, run by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, even reappeared in the App Store after being blocked for months by both Apple and the Google Play store.
But last week, Apple’s commitment seemed to falter when a popular news and commentary podcast suddenly disappeared from the company’s podcast app for users across the globe. What happened? That’s the question on many people’s minds, and it’s also the name of the censored podcast from Meduza, one of Russia’s leading independent news sources, which now operates in exile like most of its counterparts.
“Apple deletes arguably Russia’s best podcast because Russian officials have asked for it,” said Anton Barbashin, a political analyst and the editor of Riddle Russia. “I’ll remind everyone that Meduza has the best reach into Russian audience,” he wrote on X. “It only makes perfect sense for Russian state to shut them down. But WTF, @Apple?”
I might ask WTF too, except that this kind of move, accompanied by zero explanation from the company, is all too familiar. For example, in Hong Kong, Apple has repeatedly bowed to political pressure to remove apps or pause services, with no acknowledgement or justification.
Previous app removals have always been confined to one place: Hong Kong’s protest mapping app was only restricted in Hong Kong. But this time is different because Meduza’s podcast was blocked worldwide. Marielle Wijermars, a cybersecurity expert and an associate professor at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, thinks this is concerning.
“The podcast may have violated Russia’s repressive laws, which Apple could argue warrants local removal to comply with, for example, a court decision,” she told me in an email. “But their contents are not illegal outside of Russia. A global removal thus applies Russian law beyond its jurisdiction and restricts speech in other countries where that speech is actually legal.”
She’s right. And sure enough, within a few days, and with no explanation, the podcast reappeared in the App Store for users everywhere. That’s great news for now.
But the flip-flop shows that the company is not impervious to pressures from the Kremlin. And the openings in Russia for accessing real information are fewer and farther between every time I look. It’s worth noting that when Big Tech took a big stand against Russia early on in the war, users there suffered the consequences — Meta’s services and Twitter were soon blocked by Russian authorities, along with thousands of news and information websites.
What are Russians to do then? “Just use a VPN,” my tech savvy readers might say. But that’s getting tougher too. Mediazona reported earlier this week that VPNs — especially those that cater to civil society groups and independent IT researchers — are struggling to stay online in the face of new efforts to block their services. The bottom line here is that the Kremlin is making it more difficult every day to access reliable information from inside Russia. It may seem like a faraway problem. But the stakes are high because what Russian citizens believe to be true affects not only their daily lives but their perception of the war in Ukraine, including the war crimes committed in their name. I’d say this is a problem for all of us.
VPNs may also be on the chopping block in India, where the parliament just approved a new “privacy” law that could make it much harder for people to use privacy-preserving technologies, depending on how it’s implemented. The law sets new standards for the governance of data moving in and out of the country and will require companies to get express consent from people before collecting their data. Although this might sound similar to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, a critical difference is that the law doesn’t require the government to get the same consent, and it removes key due process mechanisms set up to limit government overreach. In this vein, the Internet Freedom Foundation says it could set the stage for “overbroad surveillance” by state authorities.
Kenyan authorities have put the kibosh on WorldCoin, citing privacy and finance concerns. WorldCoin, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s cryptocurrency project, has some very lofty ambitions — to bank the unbanked and to snuff out the seemingly eternal challenge of identity verification in the digital age. How do they do this? By capturing your iris data, of course 👀. WorldCoin rolled out a beta version of its system, complete with an iris-scanning “orb” (a chrome ball with a scanner inside of it) in select cities in Africa and Asia in 2021, receiving mixed reviews and deep skepticism from privacy experts.
The beta phase is over now, and WorldCoin has made its official debut. It claims to have raked in more than two million sign-ups around the world, despite facing legal challenges in Germany, France and now Kenya. Last week, Kenya’s interior ministry suspended WorldCoin and launched an investigation into the product, including its security protocols, financials and data protection mechanisms, Reuters reported. Kenya isn’t exactly a beacon for data protection, but it is a leader when it comes to mobile banking and digital money — if Altman thinks he’s bringing something new to East Africans’ mobile phones, he failed to do his homework. Mobile money has been around in Kenya since 2007, for almost as long as mobile phones have. If you’ve got a phone and a working SIM card, you can use the homegrown M-PESA system to send and receive money through a state-backed exchange. The system later expanded to Tanzania, Mozambique and a handful of other countries in Africa.
This isn’t the only thing Altman has to worry about in Kenya. Content moderators working for Sama, a third-party contractor hired by OpenAI in Kenya to clean up its data set, have filed a petition calling on regulators to investigate both companies. Moderators told the Guardian that they’re made to review reams of text and images “depicting graphic scenes of violence, self-harm, murder, rape, necrophilia, child abuse, bestiality and incest” while receiving less than $4 per hour in wages. We’ve got more coming on this story in the fall.
Altman is also facing a lawsuit at home in the U.S., targeting both OpenAI and Microsoft. The companies are being sued over their data-hoovering practices to the tune of $3 million in California. The class action suit alleges that by scraping data from across the internet to create AI products, the companies have violated federal and state laws on privacy and computer fraud. In an instructive thread about the Open AI/Microsoft suit, Oxford professor and digital privacy expert Carissa Veliz wrote that “OpenAI has scraped off data from the internet, including personal data, without paying for it or asking for people’s consent. In short, they’ve stolen that data.”