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Rossgram and app bans: Why Russia might struggle to maintain its digital iron curtain

Zobov and his team “were already prepared for this outcome of events in advance and decided not to miss the opportunity to create a Russian analogue of the popular social network beloved by our compatriots,” he said. wrote in a post on Russian social network VK. The plan, he added, was to launch in late March for “partners and top bloggers”, and in April for everyone else.

Two weeks later, Rossgram shared an update on its Telegram channel telling potential users that the app was undergoing “internal testing” and warning them that any offers to download Rossgram were from “scammers”.

The launch is still pending. “The product is currently under development. It’s too early to talk about launch,” Zobov told CNN Business in a written response in Russian via a representative. The current goal, he said, is to ensure data security and operability for “expected increasing loads” when it is finally made available to the public. “We don’t want to release a raw product,” Zobov added, saying Rossgram had already received “hundreds of thousands” of applications. “Too much responsibility.”

Some Russian watchers are skeptical of the new platform’s ability to achieve any kind of mainstream success. “It’s not literally a joke, but it will never happen,” Ian Garner, historian and translator of Russian wartime propaganda, told CNN Business. “It’s one of those patriotic ideas launched by a bold young entrepreneur in a time of crisis.”

Rossgram’s apparent launch delays and dearth of other notable Russian Instagram rivals provide a stark contrast to countries like India, where a ban on Chinese apps, including TikTok, and government tensions with Twitter in The past two years have quickly resulted in a multitude of local alternatives to these services. It also highlights the broader hurdles that Russia’s tech sector needs to overcome in order to build a self-sustaining internet that doesn’t depend on Western platforms. The Russian government has been trying to make this break for years, but that effort has been further accelerated by Russia’s war with Ukraine and the resulting exodus and repression of big US tech companies.
Within weeks, Russian citizens lost access to a host of services, including Facebook, Instagram, Spotify (PLACE) and netflix (NFLX) – either by government bans or business decisions. What remains in their place is a disparate digital ecosystem of some popular local services in various states of internal turmoil; a new alternative, Rossgram, which has yet to see the light of day; and the rare remaining Western service like WhatsApp, which continues to operate even though its sister platforms Instagram and Facebook are banned.

The continued availability of WhatsApp, in particular, may also point to a harsh reality for the Russian government, according to those who follow the country’s internet market: some services are simply too popular to be banned, or to be banned all at once. a problem that can only be complicated when there are not so many clear alternatives to replace them.

The Russian tech ecosystem

For years, the Russian Internet has had pitfalls both in the east and in the west. But now, as Russia lifts a digital iron curtain and abruptly turns to China’s much more restricted internet model, it does so without having the same robust internet and tech ecosystem as that country.

With tech giants such as Tencent (TCEHY), Weibo (BM) and Ali Baba (BABA) and a vast censorship apparatus known as the Great Firewall, China has built a thriving digital ecosystem without the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon. China has also developed indigenous versions of technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence that can rival those of United States. The situation in Russia is different.

“The Chinese market is much larger, which probably facilitates their self-sufficiency,” said Joanna Szostek, a lecturer in political communication at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, whose research focuses on Russia and Ukraine. “The Chinese internet was isolated from the start; for Russians, the new isolation will be experienced more as loss and disruption.”

Here are the companies withdrawing from Russia

Russia has created homegrown tech companies such as VK, Russia’s largest social network, and Yandex, whose services include a popular search engine and ride-sharing platform. But these companies are smaller and also under the pressure of global sanctions imposed on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, given its dependence on Western companies for key infrastructure.

“A number of companies based in the US, UK, EU and elsewhere have indicated that they are currently suspending deliveries and services to customers in Russia, which may affect us in the future. , if we are not able to find alternative sources,” Yandex said. in a statement to CNN Business. “But for now, the current capacity of our data center and other technologies essential to operations allow us to continue to operate as normal.”

The company’s CEO, Elena Bunina, stepped down earlier this week – two weeks before her term at the helm is scheduled to end. Yandex did not share the reason for his resignation, describing it as a “personal decision”. The tech company previously warned that the collapse of the Russian financial market following Western sanctions could prevent it from paying its debts.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Kiriyenko, the CEO of VK’s parent company, is among those sanctioned by the US government. And last month, Dutch investment firm Prosus announced it would cancel its investment in VK – worth around $700 million – and asked its board directors to step down.
Twitter will no longer amplify or endorse Russian government accounts
While both companies have tens of millions of users in Russia, so do major US tech platforms. Yandex handles about 60% of internet search traffic in Russia. VK, which did not respond to a request for comment, reported 72.5 million monthly active users in the last quarter of 2021. For comparison, Instagram has 51 million users and WhatsApp has 67 million. users in the country, while YouTube has 76 million, according to Insider Intelligence estimates.

The challenge of bolstering the country’s tech ecosystem can only be complicated by what Russian experts see as the Russian government’s corruption and incompetence, as well as tech talent fleeing the country.

“Many IT experts are now leaving the country,” said Mariëlle Wijermars, assistant professor of cybersecurity and policy at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, whose work focuses on Russian internet policy. “We’ve already seen quite a number emigrate over the past few years…now it’s picking up again.”

The Russian government has already offered tax incentives to boost domestic tech companies and attract skilled workers to the country from abroad. On April 4, the country’s Ministry of Industry and Commerce said it was discussing additional benefit programs for these workers.

“That’s another very clear vulnerability, the brain drain that will also really affect their potential,” added Wijermars.

The WhatsApp dilemma

Even as Russia cracks down on Western platforms, it has held back with some.

YouTube and WhatsApp have both escaped Russian bans so far, as have Facebook and Instagram, both owned by WhatsApp’s parent company. Meta (Facebook) — were blocked for hosting what the Russian government called “extremist” content. Russia’s telecommunications regulator said it opted to keep WhatsApp online because it is a private messaging service and not involved in public dissemination of information. But some experts say the app’s popularity with Russians may also have played a role.

“Whenever you block, especially a popular resource, it means you are creating an inconvenience,” Wijermars said. “In this case, by blocking Instagram, they are creating a very big inconvenience, so blocking WhatsApp as well might then be too much at the same time.”

Banning YouTube can be even more complicated. The Google-owned video streaming service is Russia’s most popular online platform and occupies a unique place in the country’s online ecosystem.

“YouTube is the most widely used of all Western platforms in Russia, and it cannot easily be replaced,” Szostek said, adding that “there are other video hosting platforms, but not with the same scale and the same range of content”.

Putin's war has sparked an exodus out of Russia - but escape options are shrinking

And it’s not just Russians who are avid YouTube users, it’s also the Russian state. “It’s a very important propaganda tool, especially for younger generations who may not watch TV,” Wijermars said.

The extent of Google (GOOGL)The services used in Russia – from web browsing to maps – could also act as a deterrent. “If you sue Google, your access to other Google services may also become restricted at some point,” Wijermars said, “and that may become very problematic because Google is still integrated in all forms into much of the world. digital infrastructure in Russia.”
But YouTube and Google have not been entirely exempt from Russian government scrutiny. The company has already received several warnings in recent weeks from Russian telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor. On Thursday, the regulator announced it would ban all Google advertising in Russia, although the company already stopped advertising in Russia last month.

WhatsApp declined to comment for this story, while Google did not respond to a request for comment.

Yes Russia enacts a blanket ban on Western technology platforms, Russians accustomed to using these platforms will likely find ways to continue to do so – as evidenced by the recent spike in Russian virtual private network (VPN) app downloads ) that allow users to bypass Internet restrictions.

“Millions of Russians have downloaded VPNs, so we can expect some people to continue using them,” Szostek said. “I would expect a lot of (younger, more tech-savvy) Russians to still access YouTube via VPN even though it is eventually banned.”