Apple shook its rules for Russia – and other countries will take notice

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Starting in April, new iPhones and other iOS devices sold in Russia will undergo an additional configuration step. Along with questions about language choice and whether to enable Siri, users will see a screen that prompts them to submit a list of apps from Russian developers. It’s not just regional specificity. This is a rebate that Apple has added to legal pressure from Moscow – one that could affect outside of Russia’s borders.

The law in question dates back to 2019, when Russia demanded that all computers, smartphones, smart TVs and so on be loaded with a selection of apps approved by the state which includes browsers, messenger platforms, and even anti-virus services. Apple has stopped short of that; the recommended apps are not pre-installed, and users can choose not to download them. But the company’s decision to bend its rules on preconditions could encourage other disciplinary regimes to make similar requests – or even more aggressive ones.

“This comes in the context of years and years of growing regulatory pressure on technical companies” in Russia, said Adrian Shahbaz, director of democracy and technology at the nonprofit House of Independence human rights. has made a major effort to redesign its Internet towards mechanisms for control, censorship, and mass surveillance, and the government has imposed increasingly stringent rules on domestic technical companies. “They have to store data on local servers, give decryption keys to security agencies, and remove content that violates Russian law,” Shahbaz says. , although not all companies do all of these things. “And now they’re leading them to promote government-approved apps on their platforms.”

The law of pre-installed apps became known as the “law against Apple,” because it largely forced Apple to pull out of the Russian market altogether instead of change the rules in the company-controlled iPhone ecosystem. Instead, Apple has confirmed an exception that others, including Android manufacturers, have not. Google, which develops the Android open source mobile operating system, will not manufacture most of the hardware of that platform, nor does it have control over the apps that come pre-installed on devices. third party. (Google makes the Pixel phone but doesn’t sell it in Russia.)

Mikhail Klimarev, executive director of the Internet Protection Association, a Russian NGO, says he believes the preset apps law has a dual function for the Kremlin. It creates an opportunity to promote apps that the country can monitor and control, while at the same time allowing the government to manipulate the tech market. The law punishes and fines any vendor who sells incompetent computers and smartphones other than the manufacturers who made them – unless, of course, the company sells their products directly in Russia, as will Apple.

“The fact is that the responsibility for the breach is placed not on the seller, but on the seller,” Klimarev says. “In this case, the law [will be used] to destroy small retailers. And then the big distributors raise their prices. In Russia many absurd laws have recently been adopted, which is technically feasible. ”

The situation with Russia’s mandatory apps isn’t the first time Apple has met aggressive legal requirements from an authoritarian government – or the first time the company has complied with those requests. Specifically, to continue operating in China, Apple agreed to use a domestic cloud provider to store their Chinese customers ’iCloud data and encryption keys. And Apple removes apps from its Chinese iOS App Store when the government wants it. The accommodation for Russian apps at the time of the settlement, however, is a new frontier in Apple’s interaction with repressive governments.

“This is part of a broader movement we have seen in countries like Iran, Turkey and India,” says Shahbaz at Freedom House. “Authorities are spreading frustration with popular foreign apps by promoting domestic equality where data and speech are tightly controlled by government. It’s feeding and turning. ”

From the point of view of economic and national security, it is somewhat incomprehensible that governments would want to promote domestic software to their own citizens. But in practice, the growing balkanization of the internet is eroding the freedom of the world wide web and weakening the whole concept of a distributed global web.

Apple’s plan still leaves a number of opportunities for users to remove government-installed apps, but the wider distribution of Russia’s selective software will inevitably occur. The apps are not specifically developed by the government, but the Kremlin, like many authoritarian governments, has wide access within the internet ecosystem. Wider distribution of their favorite apps could lead to the government’s extended access to Russian consumer data and personal information, or even situations where the government is monitoring the devices that are being used. ‘use specific and removed apps.

There are still questions as to whether Russia’s ultimate goal is to completely separate and disconnect the internet from the outside world or whether the government prefers a hybrid network. But from a Kremlin perspective, the opportunity to promote specific apps on iOS is both an incentive.

Apple could have allowed Russia to pre-install the apps it wanted on iOS devices, but the company could also have taken a radical stand against such an add-on. into. Instead, he found middle ground, one that other countries could seize in response to their own independent interests.

This story first appeared on wired.com.

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