How western companies are enabling Russian censors
The invasion of Ukraine has turned Russia into a digital totalitarian state: access to independent reliable information is diminishing by the day and any form of dissent comes at an increasingly high cost. Today, more than ever before, millions of Russians could benefit from Apple’s tool that allows users to browse the internet privately. But it is not available in Russia.
iCloud Private Relay hides a user’s IP address from sites they’re visiting, so that a server doesn’t know both who the user is and what they’re searching for or which websites they’re using. A vital tool for people concerned about their digital privacy, especially those living in authoritarian states.
And yet, Apple’s iCloud Private Relay isn’t available in some of the countries that need it most, like Turkmenistan and Belarus.
But it used to be available in Russia. Then in the leadup to parliamentary elections in 2021, Apple caved to Kremlin pressure and removed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s voting app from the App Store. Around the same time, the company disabled the Private Relay tool in the country.
Apple did not respond to questions from Coda Story.
The right thing to do now is to turn it back on and urgently, argues Sergey Sanovich at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University.
The tool is much more user-friendly than a VPN, which needs to be turned on with every use. Once enabled, Apple Private Relay is always on.
“Most people will not bother with VPN, even if it’s available,” Sanovich said. He added that Apple has a large network of servers, making it harder for governments to unilaterally cut off access, like Russia has tried to do with VPNs and other tools like Tor.
The cascade of social media or independent news sites getting blocked in Russia has pushed users in the country to VPNs, which do allow people to get around censorship. Twitter even launched a “dark web” version of the site so Russians can access the blocked platform.
iCloud Private Relay does not help with censorship or access with blocked sites. While it hides a user’s IP address and what they’re searching for, it doesn’t spoof location like VPNs do.
Sanovich said this is an opportunity for Apple to expand the tool. But enabling private browsing in Russia is important and, according to Sanovich, “should be just the start.” He says Apple then needs to think harder about how to enable “people to access something that they couldn’t access without it.”
Russia’s digital authoritarianism is expanding at warp speed. Here’s what we’re watching:
- Foreign internet backbone providers, which provide the primary high-speed links across regions, are terminating contracts with Russian companies. Experts I’ve been talking to tell me it will help Russian censors control the flow of information. One example is U.S. based Cogent, whose clients include state-owned telecommunications firm Rostelecom, the largest digital services provider in Russia. By cutting ties with Russian companies, these Western companies may inadvertently be helping to strengthen Russia’s attempts to isolate its internet from the rest of the world.
- The Russian prosecutor general’s office wants Meta to be labeled an “extremist organization” after the company temporarily changed its hate speech policy to allow threats and calls for violence against Russian soldiers. Meduza breaks down what this would mean for social media users in Russia. It’s possible Russians could be charged with “participation in the activities of an extremist organization” for having a Facebook or Instagram profile.
IN OTHER GLOBAL NEWS
- Ukraine now has free access to Clearview AI. Authorities could use the tech to uncover Russian operatives, verify people at checkpoints and identify the dead.
- In Brazil, civil rights organizations have filed a lawsuit to stop the use of facial recognition in São Paolo’s metro. For some context, check out my colleague Isobel Cockerell’s piece on gender recognition tech in the city’s subway.
- Washington State’s Employment Security Department will use ID.me, the facial recognition verification company, to verify people applying for benefits, even after ID.me incurred national backlash for a now-dropped contract with the IRS.
- In Italy, privacy authorities fined Clearview AI $22 million for illegally processing biometric and geolocation data. Clearview has been ordered to delete Italians’ data.