Russia’s Not-So-Great Firewall Is Good Enough to Sway Apple
Russia’s Not-So-Great Firewall Is Good Enough to Sway Apple
When the Russian internet censor, Roskomnadzor, threatens to block Twitter within a month unless it removes certain kinds of content, it knows full well that it lacks the effective technological means to do so; technically speaking, not even China’s Great Firewall is good at blocking undesirable services. Yet, despite resembling “Swiss cheese” more than an actual wall, according to some researchers, the Chinese censorship system works on a different level — as a thumb on competition’s scale. That is the kind of efficiency to which Russia aspires — and it’s even scored a spectacular win this week, against Apple, no less.
It’s not easy for a government censor to block a popular internet resource. No technological trick will work perfectly, and some will work badly enough to turn the censor into a laughingstock. Roskomnadzor officials know that better than many: After waging a two-year war on Telegram, the Russian-built, but now pretty much extraterritorial, messenger, it was forced last year to give up attempts to block the service. Telegram fought back, playing a high-tech version of cops and robbers with the censor; even as using it in Russia was sometimes problematic, it mostly ran OK.
Even if Twitter doesn’t fight at all — having never taken off in Russia, it doesn’t care as much as does Telegram’s Russian-born founder, Pavel Durov — Roskomnadzor’s attempt to slow it down last week shows that a standoff could be messy. Though the censor has become more technologically sophisticated since the attack on Telegram and now uses a version of China’s traffic filtering methods, it has discovered that devising the the right filters is difficult. Searching for “t.co” in domain names to slow down traffic to Twitter addresses ended up hurting rt.com, the government propaganda website whose editor Margarita Simonyan is the most active advocate of blocking foreign social media in Russia.
What can the Chinese do that the Russians can’t? Not much, really: The Great Firewall can be bypassed with the help of virtual private networks — despite the authorities’ halfhearted war on VPNs — and, if necessary, more sophisticated methods of creating covert traffic. What makes Chinese censorship relatively effective is that any inconvenience — such as having to use a VPN — is enough to turn off most consumers if other more convenient alternatives exist. Far from everyone is determined enough to seek out foreign social networks or search engines when the homegrown ones do the job just as well. In China, the entire Top 10 of social networks consists of Chinese platforms. Chinese censors don’t have to announce loudly when they’re trying to block a platform or selected contents, the way Roskomnadzor always does: It serves no practical purpose. Distorted competition, the government’s open support for local players and Western financial markets’ embrace of these players despite their acquiescence to censorship do the job better than technology as such.
What Russia lacks are those three advantages; after all, Russia’s government isn’t any more technologically backward than China’s. But among the country’s 10 most popular social media platforms, only three (counting Telegram) are of Russian origin. There are too few alternatives to the foreign players to replicate the diversionary success of the Great Firewall.
No matter how hard Russia tries, it can never match the financial might of the Chinese social platforms. Its population is about 10% that of China’s, but the market cap of Mail.ru Group, Russia’s top social media conglomerate at $6 billion, is less than 1% of Tencent Holdings ($778 billion). Size gives China a nonlinear advantage despite its similarly ugly human rights record and its status as the US’s top adversary. Besides, in today’s China, a private company can remain a pampered national champion as long as it stays in the Chinese Communist Party’s good graces; in Russia, the would-be champions are ultimately powerless against a corrupt, predatory enforcement apparatus that cares more about its own enrichment than any notion of national interest.
But what Russia can do is put foreign players at a competitive disadvantage and give the local players, such as they are, something of a lift.
Hence Roskomnadzor’s threats and the barrage of demands from state propagandists that foreign platforms be banned. Harassing the foreign players, inundating them with disingenuous complaints about the allegedly unfair treatment of Russian government content, hinting that they might be shut down in Russia someday soon is a conscious strategy meant to keep them from targeting Russia for expansion. Why invest if, like the foreign publishers of traditional media before them, they may be forced to pull out?
At the same time, the harassment is meant to soften up the Western platforms’ executives and force them to promote Russian apps. Last year, a law came into effect in Russia requiring foreign device manufacturers to preinstall Russian software on gadgets sold in the local market. On Tuesday, Apple said it would assent to the requirement and prompt buyers of new iPhones to install Russian software suggested by the government — something the company has not done in any other market.
The Russian market isn’t big enough to make foreign social media platforms jump when the Kremlin cracks a whip — but it’s just the right size for moderate compromises like Apple’s — or like China-based TikTok’s. In the second half of 2020, Russia led in requests that the short video platform remove accounts and content, sending 135 such demands involving 375 accounts; 94 of these accounts were removed by the company. The Russian government’s permanent harassment campaign may not directly create national champions to replace foreign market leaders, but the authorities — as often under Putin — are trying to make the best of the bad hand that global competition has dealt them. A Not-So-Great Firewall will have to do.