How Putin’s Pre-War Moves Against Google and Apple Prepared His Clampdown on Free Speech

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How Putin’s Pre-War Moves Against Google and Apple Prepared His Clampdown on Free Speech (



from the up-against-an-autocrat dept.

The Washington Post shares a story that hasn’t been previously disclosed. “Russian agents came to the home of Google’s top executive in Moscow to deliver a frightening ultimatum last September: take down an app that had drawn the ire of Russian President Vladimir Putin within 24 hours or be taken to prison.”

Google quickly moved the woman to a hotel where she checked in under an assumed name and might be protected by the presence of other guests and hotel security, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The same agents — believed by company officials to be from Russia’s FSB, a successor to the KGB intelligence service — then showed up at her room to tell her the clock was still ticking.

Within hours, an app designed to help Russians register protest votes against Putin could no longer be downloaded from Google or Apple, whose main representative in Moscow faced a similarly harrowing sequence….

The unnerving encounters, which have not previously been disclosed, were part of a broader campaign that Putin intensified last year to erode sources of internal opposition — moves now helping him maintain his hold on power amid a global backlash over the invasion of Ukraine. In a single year, Putin had his political nemesis Alexei Navalny imprisoned after a poisoning attempt failed to kill him; pushed independent news outlets to the brink of extinction; orchestrated a Kremlin-controlled takeover of Russia’s Facebook equivalent; and issued “liquidation” orders against human rights organizations.

Amid this internal offensive, Putin also moved to bring foreign technology companies to heel. Moscow deployed new devices that let it degrade or even block Russians’ access to Facebook and Twitter, imposed fines totaling $120 million on firms accused of defying Kremlin censors, and ordered 13 of the world’s largest technology companies to keep employees in Russia and thus exposed to potential arrest or other punishment for their employers’ actions — a measure that U.S. executives refer to as the “hostage law.”

On their own, these moves were seen as disparate signs of Russia’ descent into authoritarianism. But they also laid the groundwork for the Soviet-style suppression of free expression now underway in Russia, much as the months-long military buildup set the stage for the invasion of Ukraine.

The article also notes “preliminary evidence that the suppression strategy is working. “Polls, whose reliability is always uncertain in Russia, show that a majority of Russians support the war. In interviews with Western journalists that have gone viral online, Russians who rely on state-controlled media have consistently echoed Kremlin falsehoods about eradicating alleged Nazism in Ukraine while seeming to be genuinely oblivious to the war’s carnage.”

The article also notes how Apple is responding to Ukraine’s crisis — but also includes this anecdote:
Apple has similarly kept employees in Russia and taken other steps to placate the Kremlin. The company last year began configuring iPhones sold in Russia to promote Kremlin-backed social media companies, enabling users to activate them with a single click. It is an accommodation Apple has rarely made elsewhere and advances Putin’s goal of migrating Russian people to platforms controlled by the government, according to Russia analysts.

A memorandum is written not to inform the reader, but to protect the writer.
— Dean Acheson


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