The world’s largest technology companies are taking extraordinary measures amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – far beyond any steps they have made in previous geopolitical conflicts.
Apple Inc. AAPL-Q has halted the sale of all products in Russia, taking down Apple Pay services and restricting access to Kremlin-controlled news outlets such as RT and Sputnik. The U.S.-based tech giant has also stopped displaying live-traffic features for Apple Maps, after a move by Google parent Alphabet Inc. this week to temporarily disable similar functions on Google Maps. Alphabet said it took the action for the safety of local Ukrainian communities.
Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has activated satellite service in Ukraine through its Starlink system to safeguard the country’s broadband internet during the conflict. Microsoft Corp. said it is helping protect Ukraine from cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns and providing the country with humanitarian assistance.
At the same time, Meta Platforms Inc. FB-Q – which operates Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram – said it has added new safety features such as locking accounts, labelling misinformation, removing the ability to view or search for friend lists and demoting posts that contain links to Russian media websites.
The moves were made after Ukrainian leaders pleaded with the companies late last week in a letter. “We need your support,” said the letter written by Ukrainian Vice-Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, who shared it on Twitter.
“Modern technology is perhaps the best answer to the tanks, multiple rocket launchers and missiles.”
The blog posts and statements that announced the new measures from the trillion-dollar companies used language that they have previously shied away from. Microsoft president Brad Smith, for example, called the conflict “the tragic, unlawful and unjustified invasion of Ukraine.”
“This has become both a kinetic and digital war, with horrifying images from across Ukraine as well as less visible cyberattacks on computer networks and internet-based disinformation campaigns,” Mr. Smith wrote.
It is a sharp contrast to the “politically neutral, actor-agnostic” image that these internet-based corporations have maintained over the course of the past decade, said Philip Mai, co-director of the Social Media Lab at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“Of course, it is up for debate whether they were ever truly politically neutral,” he said. “But the fact is, this is something they have decided they are no longer being neutral about. And that from them is quite the big shift.”
The measures also raise questions about why the tech companies have not taken initiatives or weighed in on other international conflicts before, Mr. Mai said. “You start to wonder why they chose to do something here. Was it because we’re talking about wealthy, white nations and not Afghanistan, Syria or South America?” he said.
“They’ve now sort of lost any high ground about where and how they choose not to be involved in other geopolitical situations. When the dust hopefully settles in Ukraine, what will they do for other calls in other countries?”
Carmen Celestini, a postdoctoral fellow with The Disinformation Project at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, agrees.
“If combatting disinformation or misinformation is what they’re saying they have taken these steps for, well, that’s been happening for years and proliferating in several other regions,” said Prof. Celestini, who is also an instructor at the University of Waterloo.
Anatoliy Gruzd, a Toronto-based Canada Research Chair in privacy-preserving digital technologies, is not surprised by the new measures. “There’s been a trend at tech companies that has been developing quite clearly over the last few years, where we’ve seen them publishing transparency reports and calling out countries that run disinformation campaigns on their platforms,” he said.
“We’ve seen this for good reason during the COVID-19 pandemic. And we’ve also seen this in China, where Big Tech has certainly vocalized their stance before.”
However, Katrina German, chief executive officer of Saskatoon-based online strategies firm Ethical Digital, believes the decision was only based on monetary rationale.
“Each company is obviously trying to figure out what’s the best approach for them individually and I’m sure conversations on that are still taking place about whether these things should be temporary or not. What ties them all together though is that they’re still considering their revenue first and foremost,” Ms. German said.
“Apple, for example, does not have physical stores in Russia, but it does have a big market in other European and North American countries who have clearly vocalized their support for Ukraine. So, yes, this is still very much a business decision,” she added.
On Tuesday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Meta and Alphabet are responsible for “inciting war,” according to the state communicator Roskomnadzor. The country demanded that foreign internet services stop discriminating against their regime and that they “will be held responsible.”
Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.