The Russian government has told 13 mostly U.S.-based tech firms that they need to set up local offices in Russia by next year or maybe just get the hell out, according to Reuters.
A Russian law that took effect at the beginning of July requires any social media firms with more than 500,000 daily users to open offices within Russia—a move designed both to promote domestic tech firms and make sure that foreign competitors can’t evade regulations about handing over user data. Roskomnadzor, the Russian state agency responsible for monitoring, controlling, and censoring mass media, issued a warning this week that some 13 U.S. companies including Alphabet’s Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as TikTok and UK-based chat app Telegram, need to set up those offices or face consequences that could range from restrictions on advertising or finance to outright bans throughout the country.
The law states that “A foreign entity, carrying out activities on the internet in Russia, is obliged to create a branch, open an office or establish a Russian legal entity,” Reuters previously reported.
Karen Kazaryan, the head of the Internet Research Institute (not to be confused with the Internet Research Agency, a notorious Russian troll farm) told Reuters that the instructions issued by Roskomnadzor seemed purposefully vague.
“There is no explanation in the law, no clarification as to what the legal form of the organisation’s representation should be,” Kazaryan told the news agency. Roskomnadzor responded to Reuters by stating that in addition to opening local offices, the foreign firms must register accounts with the agency and provide feedback forms for Russian users. They must also “limit access to information that violates Russian legislation,” the agency added.
There are legitimate reasons for nations to require tech firms to set up domestic offices, including leverage to enforce local regulations pertaining to things like user privacy or taxes (the latter issue being a particular sore spot with European officials). However, the Russian government under Vladimir Putin has cracked down on dissent in recent years, including by requiring service providers to install black boxes that allow government officials to throttle access to services that don’t play ball. Roskomnadzor has threatened to block foreign services that refuse to take down content deemed illegal (including organizing banned protests).
In 2018, before the Russian government rolled out the filtering infrastructure at service providers, a bungled attempt to block Telegram throughout Russia caused widespread internet outages. Putin has also signed a law that was justified as protecting Russia’s internet sovereignty in the event it is cut off from the foreign web, but also could allow regulators to black out domestic access to swathes of the global internet.