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Putin’s war in Ukraine shatters Silicon Valley’s neutrality myth

Authoritarian Tech is a weekly newsletter tracking how people in power are abusing technology and what it means for the rest of us. Also in this edition: Kenya’s controversial digital ID scheme; and Chinese social media censors respond to Ukraine

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On Monday morning, the tech policy expert and former member of the European Parliament, Marietje Schaake, took to Twitter with the same question I had when I opened my laptop to write this newsletter: “What US social media companies are still available in Russia?” she asked

If you’ve been following this topic closely, you’re probably aware that the answer depends on the day, or even the hour, you ask it. By the time you read this newsletter, it’s possible that there will be new names to add to the ever-expanding list of tech companies — from the U.S. and elsewhere — changing how they interact with Russia, or new revelations about how pro-Kremlin content is circulating on popular platforms. (Take, for example, this recent report from USA Today about the violent, pro-war messages on the Swedish streaming app Spotify).

I’m writing this newsletter from my desk in the Bay Area, the epicenter of the technology industry — a place that is thousands of miles away from the war, but completely enmeshed in how it is broadcast to the rest of the world. When it comes to the digital sphere, this crisis has manifested right on Silicon Valley’s doorstep. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has generated furious calls for top tech companies to sever ties with Russia and take action against pro-Kremlin disinformation and propaganda. Since then, we’ve seen a dizzying array of changes. Some are decisions made by the companies themselves; others are the result of action taken by Russia.

Here’s a short but by no means exhaustive recap. Apple stopped selling its products in Russia, limited access to Apple Pay within the country, and pulled RT and Sputnik from its app store. Google, Facebook, and Twitter cut off advertising from Russian state media. Facebook and YouTube blocked access to RT and Sputnik in the European Union. Twitter labeled tweets from Russian state media outlets. Netflix and Airbnb pulled out of Russia. Microsoft halted all new product sales in Russia. And on Friday, the Kremlin bit back, blocking access to Twitter and Facebook in Russia. (For more, be sure to check out this comprehensive list from Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center).

All of which brings us back to Schaake’s initial question: What U.S. social media companies are still available in Russia? As of Monday, according to Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel at the digital rights group Access Now, the answer is Instagram, Whatsapp, and Youtube. That could look different in a day or a week, however. As Krapiva explained: “It can change tomorrow. Things are happening quickly.”

There’s been a range of responses to this flurry of activity. Some say the actions of Silicon Valley’s social media giants have come way too late. But others have expressed concern that communications platforms’ pulling the plug on Russia entirely means fewer online spaces where independent, critical voices can share information and access alternative points of view.

“YouTube and Instagram are some of the few remaining online platforms in Russia for independent media to share the truth about what is happening in Ukraine,” Krapiva told me. “This is why the Russian government wants to block these platforms. We should not help Putin silence independent and anti-war voices online but instead help strengthen and amplify them.”

What is clear, from where I’m sitting in the Bay Area, is that Silicon Valley’s myth of laissez-faire neutrality is fracturing in real-time as the world recognizes the role the industry plays in modern conflict. These companies have long positioned themselves as impartial free speech defenders — startup-garage utopianists wary of wading into the geopolitical fray. But they are in fact so important to the current events unfolding in Ukraine that the country’s vice prime minister is publicly imploring Silicon Valley tech giants on Twitter to sever ties with Russia. That governments are simultaneously calling on technology companies for help and taking action against them underscores just how widely understood their power really is. The myth of neutrality may be shattering before us, but it’s unclear what new tech narrative will take shape in its absence.

IN OTHER GLOBAL NEWS: 

In Kenya, a controversial digital ID bill is on the table – and generating fierce pushback. The proposal, which is the latest bid to bring a digital ID system to Kenya (a previous version was found to be unconstitutional), is currently before the country’s parliament. The bill would collect citizens’ biometric data and provide them with an identification card and a number that would they would need to present in order to access government services. Critics say the bill as written is overly broad, raises privacy concerns, and has the potential to exclude vulnerable groups unable to access the identity documents needed in order to obtain the ID. The bill is one of a number of digital ID systems either passed or under consideration in African countries. You can check out more of Coda’s coverage of global biometric identification schemes here.

Pro–Ukrainian hackers allegedly infiltrated the website of Russia’s space research institute last week and left a slew of English messages on the site. The incident was among a handful of digital disruptions pro-Ukraine volunteer hackers have recently claimed credit for – including a reported attack that programmed some Russian electric vehicle charging stations to display messages in support of Ukraine. Other hacks have allegedly targeted the Russian Foreign Ministry, a state-owned bank, and the country’s largest stock exchange. All the hacktivity has cyber experts on high alert for retaliatory attacks against the U.S. and other NATO countries.

WHAT WE ARE READING

  • After the murder of George Floyd, law enforcement agencies built a sprawling surveillance dragnet in Minnesota, according to a damning new investigation by MIT Technology Review. Reporters found the secretive program has targeted civil rights activists and journalists. They write: “We found evidence of a complex engine of surveillance tailor-made for keeping close tabs on protesters and sharing that information among local and federal agencies, regardless of whether the subjects were suspected of any wrongdoing.”
  • Social media censors in China have their hands full when it comes to the war in Ukraine. According to WIRED, Chinese social media platforms “must be sure to toe the official line amid subtle shifts in China’s position.” They’re taking down pro-war and anti-Russia posts and receiving regular guidance from Beijing about content to remove. 

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