The Internet is global. But tech companies do business in individual countries. So tech companies have to follow the rules of those countries, even if they’re worse or worse.
It’s a yardstick that Big Tech companies – most of which are based in the US – have used for years, even when it annoys the company, their employees, or their customers. Now that’s over: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Big Tech is finally on its side. It’s a move that has real-world consequences today but could make even more sense.
One by one, Google, Meta, TikTok and every other consumer tech company is on Ukraine’s side in some way. The scale and impact of their moves varied: Immediately after the invasion, for example, platforms like YouTube and Facebook stopped distributing Russian state-owned propaganda services outside of the United States. United States, but continued to try to operate within Russia. TikTok stopped uploading new posts and live streams from Russia; Earlier this week, Netflix announced that it stopped streaming video in Russia. Spotify announced that it will close its offices in Russia but will keep its audio streaming service operating in that country.
The tech industry is certainly not alone in trying to show their distaste for the death and destruction Russia is creating. Everyone from Disney to McDonald’s to Levi Strauss has stopped or halted business there. Companies sometimes say they do so because it’s no longer safe for their employees to work there – as the New York Times and Bloomberg have done in recent days, cites new Russian law that effectively criminalizes independent journalism. And some moves don’t depend on individual companies, like banking ban means cutting Russia off from international finance. Now US bans Russian oil importsalso.
However, the difference between those companies and the technology is partly down to ideology: Today’s tech giants were born in an age where the idea of a global Internet, not limited by local borders and rules, are considered one. So any retreat from any nation is a meaningful concession to many of their founding principles.
In practical terms, leaving Russia or imposing other restrictions on services and products there won’t have much of an impact on Big Tech going forward. Google’s YouTube won’t notice ads they can’t run on Russia’s RT, and Netflix’s CFO has announced that withdrawing in Russia won’t matter to their business, as people Russia accounts for less than 1% of the company’s subscriber base.
Instead, this is a long-term problem for Big Tech. The premise of most tech companies is that their products are valuable because they can be produced once and distributed anywhere, to an unlimited number of buyers. That is why, so far, most of them have worked very hard to satisfy countries that oppose their products in some way. Sometimes that means taking down an episode of a TV show or a social media post critical of an autocrat or the country’s leaders – like Netflix did in Saudi Arabia a few years agoor Twitter and Facebook did it in India. Sometimes it means literally redrawing the map to reflect how a country wants to be seen – like both Apple and Google followed Russia’s orders after annexing Crimea. And tech companies have turned themselves into knots trying to figure out how to both respond to fact-based public health messages during the pandemic with dangerous and delusional claims from their leaders. some governments (e.g. Brazil and the United States).
The most prominent exception to this balancing act is China, where big Tech companies once expected to make big strides but have pulled out of the country – just like Google did in 2010 – or found themselves unwelcome from the start, as Facebook and Netflix did. Countries that can work in China – especially Apple – often do so by offering low-power concessions, like Apple’s move to ban an app used by Hong Kong protesters.
The question now is whether Big Tech’s departure from Russia is a one-off or a precedent. Tech companies would certainly argue that’s the old one. Note that even as Facebook and other tech platforms have cut off Russian state media, they argued that they should continue to operate inside Russia, to provide its citizens with the opportunity to communicate between themselves and with the rest of the world. Russia, meanwhile, is trying to downsize its efforts.
But now that the tech giants have admitted they do indeed have lines they won’t cross – in this case, a deadly intrusion that has raised the specter of nuclear war – the the company will asked to explain why they are okay with other compromises, such as, Turkey or other authoritarian states. Those will be uncomfortable discussions, but that’s not a bad thing: Even neutrality is a stance, and you should ask if you’re choosing it because it’s ethical or simply convenient. for your brand of capitalism.
https://www.vox.com/recode/2022/3/9/22968744/russia-ukraine-facebook-tiktok Big Tech drops neutral in Russia-Ukraine crisis