Apple has bent its rules for Russia – and other countries will take note | GeekComparison

Smartphone on display in a store.

Starting in April, new iPhones and other iOS devices sold in Russia will include an additional installation step. In addition to questions about language preference and Siri enabling, users will see a screen asking them to install a list of apps from Russian developers. It is not just a regional peculiarity. It’s a concession Apple has made to legal pressure from Moscow — one that could have implications far beyond Russia’s borders.

The law in question dates back to 2019, when Russia dictated that all computers, smartphones, smart TVs, and so on sold there must be preloaded with a selection of state-approved apps, including browsers, messenger platforms, and even antivirus services. . Apple has stopped doing that; the suggested apps are not pre-installed and users can choose not to download them. But the company’s decision to relax its pre-installation rules could inspire other repressive regimes to make similar demands — or even more invasive ones.

“This comes within the context of years and years of increasing regulatory pressure on technology companies” in Russia, said Adrian Shahbaz, director for democracy and technology at the nonprofit Freedom House for human rights. The country has made a huge effort to transform its internet into control, censorship and mass surveillance mechanisms. And the government has imposed increasingly strict regulations on domestic tech companies. “They have to store data on local servers, provide security authorities with decryption keys, and remove content that violates Russian law,” Shahbaz says, although not all companies do all those things. “And now they are being forced to promote government-approved apps on their platforms.”

The pre-installed apps law became known as the “against Apple law” because it essentially challenged Apple to pull out of the Russian market entirely, rather than change the rules in the company’s controlled iPhone ecosystem. Instead, Apple has made an exception that others, including Android manufacturers, do not have. Google, which develops the open source Android mobile operating system, does not directly manufacture most of that platform’s hardware and does not control which apps are pre-installed on third-party devices. (Google makes the Pixel phone, but doesn’t sell it in Russia.)

Mikhail Klimarev, executive director of the Internet Protection Society, a Russian non-governmental organization, says he believes the pre-installed apps law serves a dual purpose for the Kremlin. It creates an opportunity to promote apps that the country can control and control, while also allowing the government to manipulate the technology market. The law will punish and fine any seller who sells non-compliant computers and smartphones rather than the manufacturers who made them, unless, of course, the company also sells its products directly in Russia, as Apple does.

“The fact is that the responsibility for the violation does not lie with the seller, but with the retailer,” says Klimarev. “In this case, the law [will be used] to destroy small sellers. And then the big distributors will raise their prices. In Russia, a lot of absurd laws have recently been passed, which are technically impractical.”

The situation with Russia’s mandatory apps isn’t the first time Apple has faced sweeping legal requirements from an authoritarian government, nor the first time the company has given in to those demands. Notably, to continue operating in China, Apple agreed to use a domestic cloud provider to store its Chinese customers’ iCloud data and encryption keys. And Apple removes apps from its Chinese iOS App Store when the government asks. However, the accommodation for Russian apps during installation is a new frontier in Apple’s interactions with repressive governments.

“This is part of a broader trend that we’ve seen in countries like Iran, Turkey and India,” said Freedom House’s Shahbaz. “Authorities are channeling frustration with popular foreign apps while promoting domestic equivalents where data and voice are more tightly controlled by the government. It’s bait.”

From both an economic and national security standpoint, it is understandable to some extent that governments want to promote domestic software to their own citizens. But in practice, the increasing balkanization of the Internet is eroding Internet freedom worldwide and undermining the whole concept of a decentralized, global web.

Apple’s plan still leaves multiple options for users to uninstall government-mandated apps, but promoting them during installation will inevitably result in wider distribution of Russia’s chosen software. The apps were not specifically developed by the government, but the Kremlin, like many authoritarian governments, has wide reach within its internet ecosystem. Wider distribution of his favorite apps could lead to more extensive government access to Russian user data and personal information or even situations where the government keeps track of which devices are using certain apps and which have removed them.

Questions remain about whether Russia’s end goal is to completely isolate and disconnect its internet from the rest of the world or whether the government prefers a hybrid network. But from the Kremlin’s perspective, the ability to promote certain apps on iOS is a boon anyway.

Apple could have simply allowed Russia to pre-install any apps it wanted on iOS devices, but the company could also have taken a radical stance against such interference. Instead, it found a middle ground, a middle ground that other countries could very well use to advance their own autocratic interests.

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