From April, New iPhones and other iOS devices sold in Russia will include an additional setup step. Along with questions about language preferences and Siri activation, users will see a screen prompting them to install a list of apps from Russian developers. It is not only a regional peculiarity. It’s a concession Apple made to legal pressure from Moscow – a concession 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, etc. sold there must be preloaded with a selection of state-approved apps that include browsers, email platforms, and even antivirus services. . Apple stopped before that; the suggested apps are not preinstalled and users can choose not to download them. But the company’s decision to circumvent its pre-installation rules could prompt other repressive regimes to make similar, if not more invasive, demands.
“This comes against the backdrop of years and years of increasing regulatory pressure on tech companies” in Russia, says Adrian Shahbaz, director of democracy and technology at the nonprofit advocacy organization. human rights Freedom House. control mechanisms, censorship, and mass surveillance. And the government has imposed increasingly stringent regulations on domestic tech companies. “They have to store data on local servers, provide security agencies with decryption keys, and remove content that violates Russian law,” Shahbaz says, although not all companies do all of this. “And now they are forced to promote the government. approved apps on their platforms. “
The law on preinstalled applications has become known as the “law against Apple” because it essentially challenged Apple to pull out of the Russian market altogether rather than change the rules of the company-controlled iPhone ecosystem. Instead, Apple created an exception that others, including Android makers, don’t have. Google, which develops the open-source Android mobile operating system, does not directly manufacture most of the hardware for that platform, and does not control which apps come preinstalled 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 law on preinstalled apps has a dual function for the Kremlin. This creates an opportunity to promote applications that the country can monitor and control, while allowing the government to manipulate the technology market. The law will penalize and sanction any supplier who sells non-compliant computers and smartphones rather than the manufacturers who made them – unless, of course, the company also sells its products directly to Russia, like Apple does.
“The point is that the responsibility for the violation is not on the seller, but on the retailer,” Klimarev says. “In this case, the law [will be used] to destroy small sellers. And then the big distributors will increase their prices. In Russia, many absurd laws have been passed recently, which is technically impractical. “
The situation with Russia’s mandatory apps isn’t the first time Apple has faced invasive legal demands from an authoritarian government – nor the first time the company has bowed to those demands. Notably, to continue operating in China, Apple has agreed to use a national cloud provider to store iCloud data and encryption keys for its Chinese customers. And Apple removes apps from its Chinese iOS App Store when the government demands it. Adapting Russian apps during installation, however, is a new frontier in Apple’s interactions with repressive governments.
“This is part of a larger trend that we have seen in countries like Iran, Turkey and India,” says Shahbaz of Freedom House. “The authorities are channeling frustration with popular foreign apps while promoting domestic equivalents where data and speech are more tightly controlled by the government. It’s a bait and a switch.