The iPhone Could Be Banned in Russia by 2020

A ‘Digital Iron Curtain’ is descending over part of the world

Credit: Sergei Savostyanov/Getty Images

RRussia’s State Duma just announced that starting next July, all electronics in Russia (including smartphones, computers, and smart TVs) will be required to come preinstalled with apps made by Russian tech firms.

According to Alexander Yushchenko, a Communist Party representative, one contender for preinstallation is Gosuslugi — the Russian government services app. However, a complete list of required apps is yet to be published.

The law does not state that non-Russian software must be banned on devices, just that such apps must be installed alongside Russian software. However, vendors who fail to comply with these rules will be fined in excess of $3,000, and could eventually be banned from the Russian marketplace if they commit repeat offenses.

A brief summary of the extensive history of internet censorship in Russia

Over the past few years, Russia has ramped up its attempts to introduce increasingly strict laws in an attempt to gain a tighter grip on the internet traffic that passes through the country.

According to the most recent publication of Freedom on the Net, a yearly report carried out by the NGO Freedom House, the internet in Russia is classified as “not free” in comparison to the rest of the world. For the past six years, Russia’s internet freedom score has been on the decline — and it’s not difficult to understand why.

In November 2017, the Russian government implemented a bill that banned all websites designed to circumvent internet filtering. This included VPNs, anonymizers, and instructions that advised users on how to circumvent blocking.

In April 2018, the Russian authorities used anti-terrorism laws to introduce a nationwide ban on the encrypted messaging app Telegram — an app founded by two Russian brothers that had over 10 million Russian users — under anti-terrorism laws because it refused to provide encryption keys to the Federal Security Service. This was a hugely controversial issue. In response, Pavel Chikov, a lawyer representing Telegram in the case, wrote on his Telegram channel: “They have demonstrated again and again that the court system is devoted to serving the interests of the authorities. They no longer even care about basic external appearances.”

In December 2018, Google was fined 500,000 rubles — the equivalent of approximately $7,500 — because it violated a legal requirement imposed by the Russian government to remove certain entries from its search results.

In March 2019, the Russian government passed a bill that introduced fines for anyone who the government decided was spreading “fake news” or “disrespect of the government.” It stipulated that individuals would be fined up to 400,00 rubles — the equivalent of approximately $6,100 — for circulating false information online, and that those who show “blatant disrespect” would be fined up to 100,000 rubles — the equivalent of approximately $1,500. Repeat offenders face jail time of up to 15 days.

In September 2019, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media — also known as Roskomnadzor — began installing equipment that served to isolate Russia from the rest of the world. The government stated that this was to protect against potential cyber attacks from the United States, but many people remain skeptical.

Preinstalled apps could lead to yet more privacy problems for Russian citizens

Installing preinstalled apps is not a new phenomenon — many Western devices already come with preinstalled apps, such as calculators, weather apps, and internet browsers. In comparison to these laws, the most recent requirement for Russian devices to be sold with preinstalled apps might not seem like such a big deal. However, the law has the potential to be a privacy nightmare.

Around the world, many phones — usually cheap phones targeted at low-income users — are preinstalled with potentially dangerous apps known as “bloatware” that invade users’ privacy and risk leaving them vulnerable to security loopholes.

And there’s not much that users can do to find out exactly what these loopholes are. Given that Russian citizens already have an alarmingly low level of trust in their government, it’s hardly surprising that citizens are skeptical.

In the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer — an annual trust and credibility survey that measures trust across a number of institutions, sectors, and geographies — Russia scored dead last out of the 26 countries involved.

Why does the Russian government want preinstalled apps on all phones? It depends on who you ask.

The cellphone market in Russia is currently dominated by foreign manufacturers — primarily Apple, Samsung, and Huawei. The co-sponsors of the Russia bill claim that this new law will provide a boost to local manufacturers, thereby helping to “protect Russian internet companies.”

Yushchenko, another of the co-sponsors, has claimed that the bill will also assist the elderly. “Of course, many people can install whatever they want on their smartphones or computers themselves, but more senior individuals may encounter problems, and they need help,” he told the Russian news site Meduza.

Online privacy advocates have their own opinions. Some people believe that this is simply a way for the government to unknowingly install spyware on people’s devices in order to increase surveillance and censorship. Yushchenko’s response was hardly comforting. He said: “We’re being tracked in any case, and this isn’t about intelligence services.”

Others have suggested that it is another nationalist attempt by the Russian government to assert authority as part of its increasing efforts to make the country’s internet traffic less dependent on foreign companies.

What risks does this pose for tech companies?

Some critics have stated that it will not be possible to install the required software on certain devices, which may force the devices out of the Russian market altogether.

Back in April 2019, a source from Apple told the Russian Kommersant newspaper: “A mandate to add third-party applications to Apple’s ecosystem would be equivalent to jailbreaking. It would pose a security threat, and the company cannot tolerate that kind of risk.”

For tech giants like Apple, a $3,000 fine is negligible — and this would not be the first time that major tech companies have outright ignored Russian laws. However, if Apple continues to hold fast to its policies — and there is currently little doubt that it will — there is an increasing chance that the iPhone could be effectively banned in Russia by July 2020.

Requiring phones to be sold with preinstalled apps is enough to ring alarm bells in itself. But when combined with the rest of Russia’s increasingly restrictive surveillance policies over the past few years, it becomes impossible to ignore. It’s not just about helping the elderly, or even propping up Russian companies — it’s about Russia tightening its controlling grip on its citizens and the internet.

Tech journalist. Contributing Editor at PandoDaily.

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