Would Apple Leave Russia Over Device Ban?

TMO's Dramatic Reenactment of a Typical Russian Hacker

Going into effect on July 2020, Russia just passed a law that would ban the sale of devices that don’t come pre-installed with Russian software. This obviously butts up against the integrity of iOS. Would Apple have the “courage” to leave the country if the Kremlin tried to force them to install their surveillance software? Because of course it’s for surveillance. Why else would a government meddle with device makers in this way?

The law will not mean devices from other countries cannot be sold with their normal software – but Russian “alternatives” will also have to be installed.

The legislation was passed by Russia’s lower house of parliament on Thursday. A complete list of the gadgets affected and the Russian-made software that needs to be pre-installed will be determined by the government.

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3 thoughts on “Would Apple Leave Russia Over Device Ban?

  • Andrew:

    I, too, read this on BBC. Thanks for highlighting it.

    To label the argument made by Oleg Nikolayev, one of the bill’s authors, namely that Russians need to be made aware that there are alternatives to apps written in the West, and that pre-installing them on devices is an essential step in making sure that Russians know what these options are, specious would be generous; it’s transparently and demonstrably false. Russians, particularly youth, are amongst the most tech-savvy users on the planet. This is nothing less than a naked attempt to breach Apple’s walled garden, ironically derided by some in its Western user base. The Russian government simply want to reach into that garden and Force Touch someone. Apple’s curation, however imperfect, and their ban on so-called side-loading in the absence of a jail break, is a relatively effective barrier to crude, brute force, malware enabled surveillance. As we have seen, it is not perfect, but it is iterative and more effective than the open Google Play field that is Android.

    That said, what should Apple or any other tech concern do?

    There are at least two responses to that question.

    First, in the spirit of Gandhi’s quip, ‘There are unjust laws just as there are unjust men’, this is one law that should not be complied with. It is one thing for a country to draft legislation that rules out third party apps that behave in specific ways (eg China), but otherwise permit companies to maintain a common standard (eg end to end encryption, curated apps over which the company retains control) designed to protect user privacy and other arguably basic human rights. It is quite another to comply with a law that tramples a core right, like privacy and personal choice, both of which are violated by this proposed Russian legislation. Although distinct in approach, it is the same in intent behind the calls for either a ban on end to end encryption or a ‘back door’ to said encryption by law enforcement and legislators in the West; calls that Apple continue to resist for the same good reason. Indeed, were Apple or others to comply with this crude attempt at compromise of user privacy, it would be simply the first of many steps to completely transform their platform to an unambiguous state surveillance tool.

    Second, is political leadership, appallingly absent with the rise of authoritarian and nationalist leaders in both the West and East, who are being increasingly enabled by the ceding of progressively greater powers concentrated in their hands against the background of the erosion of checks and balances by an increasingly enfeebled legislative branch of parliaments and congresses, all at the cost of individual liberty, whether of speech, assembly, movement or the right to even criticise political leadership. What is absent on the world stage is the political leadership to coordinate on the implements of human rights, extending these protections to the private sector, and imposing penalties from partner countries on governments that violate those rights or attempt to compel industry to partner in violating those rights. Currently, we are largely left to rely on isolated private sector concerns, like a tech company, to get in between an oppressive government or a police state and the individual. Needless to say, Apple’s or any other concern’s ultimate play is to simply withdraw from that market, which is virtually no defence to the people in these settings, other than Apple’s refusal to be a party to the quashing of their liberties. Apple and other companies should understand that authoritarians will continue with their brutalisation of their own people, with or without Apple’s assistance.

    Apple should chose not to assist.

    Given the unlikelihood of any coordinated political response by the world’s governments to protect individual liberties and impose penalties of any sort, be they trade sanctions, other economic levers, exclusion from political organisations or otherwise, on governments that violate those rights, tech companies are left to themselves to coordinate, should they choose, on a response, or accept to be picked apart, pitted against one another in competition and be left prey to authoritarian tactics of divide and conquer.

    Sadly, the latter is the most likely outcome, if current history is a guide, particularly given the documented unscrupulous behaviour of some of these tech giants, with some companies complying and others not.

    I cherish the hope of being proved wrong.

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