Steve November 25, 2021
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The Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor has told 13 foreign businesses, predominantly US tech firms, they must set up and/or maintain offices in Russia if they want to keep doing business in the country.

The list includes Google, Meta/Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Telegram, as first reported by Reuters. Zoom, Viber, Spotify, Likee, Discord, Pinterest, and Twitch are also included.

All must now set up offices in Russia by 2022 at the latest, if they haven’t already got at least one. If they decline, the regulator can take “coercive measures,” such as removing the foreign businesses from Russian web search results, banning them from advertising or collecting data in the nation, and imposing other restrictions.

The move comes after Federal Law No.236-FZ was passed in June, requiring all foreign companies with more than 500,000 daily Russian users to have representation in Russia by July 1, and set up a portal to handle complaints with Roskomnadzor.

This list marks the first time the companies that must comply have been named.

It’s pretty clear the law was passed to ensure Russia can physically get its hands on someone at a large foreign business if that corporation breaks the law or falls foul of Moscow. It’s hard for a tech giant to wriggle out of a dispute with officials when its staff are being thrown into the back of a van to be disappeared by an authoritarian state.

This was amply demonstrated in September.

Google and Apple had hosted a Smart Voting app devised by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is being held in a Russian prison after surviving an assassination attempt, involving novichok poisoning, by FSB spies. The app is designed to help parties opposing Putin’s United Russia political machine to coordinate tactical voting to ensure a better chance of victory.

Then the US goliaths abruptly pulled the app from their software stores after being threatened with hefty fines by Russian regulators, who said the application was illegal.

At the same time there were reports of armed men loitering outside Google’s offices in Russia, and that specific Apple and Google staff in the nation would be rounded up and personally prosecuted, as opposed to just their employer, if the app wasn’t taken down.

Navalny said he was considering legal action against the two tech giants; the corporations said the app had been deemed unlawful by officials, and so it couldn’t be distributed.

President Putin’s g-men aren’t shy about arresting people at their offices and detaining them for months if they think it’s justified. Tech giants could therefore have problems hiring and retaining staff in Russia. All the free restaurants, desk massage, and in-house bars aren’t going to be tempting perks if they come with an optional stay in a Russian prison.

That may mean no presence can be maintained in Russia, which opens the businesses to sanctions, which may be the whole point of this exercise.

And before you start about the headline: yes, we know Western governments detain people too. The fact is this law means it’s probably not just Apple and Google that’ll be terrorized in future if Moscow feels slighted. ®

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