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Putin’s Internetphobia punts Google

"We took back some folks." (Photo Credit: Pete Souza)

“We took back some folks.” (Photo Credit: Pete Souza)

Several months after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the Internet is a “CIA project,” the effects of his unabashed paranoia are already being felt.

Google, the American search giant, is reportedly pulling its engineering team out of their Russian offices. Why is unclear, and the company has yet to comment on its reasons. Google has, however, noted, “We are deeply committed to our Russian users and customers and we have a dedicated team in Russia working to support them.” According to reports, its Russian team will retain its marketing and support staff.

The search engine giant is hardly the first, and will undoubtedly not be the last, to close up shop in Russia. Adobe, an American-company, left Russia in September; the founder of the country’s most popular social network, Vkontakte, took off in April. Venture capital firms are looking to invest elsewhere, including ones originally founded in Russia. Digital media companies are also at a crossroads, such as BuzzFeed, which was threatened with a country-wide ban last week.

The trigger of the tech community’s anxiety? The Kremlin’s ongoing crackdown on the Russian Internet, dubbed RuNet, and a host of byzantine laws that threaten both providers and users alike.

For years, the RuNet was left largely on its own, at least compared to traditional media. True, government surveillance has always been an issue, particularly the state’s telecommunications surveillance apparatus, dubbed SORM, or System of Operative-Investigative Measure, which has expanded since the 1980s to include digital and mobile communications. However, the Kremlin has struggled for years to effectively tap into data stored on servers outside of Russia’s borders. Hence, in 2014, under the auspices of providing better data “protection” for Russian citizens, the Kremlin moved to localize data storage. What this means is that “an operator gathering personal data, including by Internet, must ensure recording, systemizing, accumulation, storage, updating and uploading of personal data of the Russian citizens with the databases located on the territory of the Russian Federation.” Or, in brief: All your data belong to us.

Bloggers, too, are feeling the heat. As of Aug. 1, the government doesn’t need a warrant to track them; then again, it also never really needed a warrant to collect digital and mobile data captured through SORM in the first place. (More here.) Bloggers with over 3,000 readers now have to register as media outlets with the government, which opens them up to additional restrictions and regulations.

So, all things considered, Google’s announcement isn’t surprising. Google certainly has the resources to adhere to the Kremlin’s localization rules, but the infrastructure demands are still preposterous. If Google, whose funding is practically endless at this point, is unwilling to throw money away on Putin’s requests, it’s tremendously unlikely that smaller foreign companies will do the same. Even if smaller domestic startups — such as those meant to be housed in Moscow’s Skolkovo Innovation Center (Russia’s “Silicon Valley”) — pick up some of the slack, the hurdles they face are huge. For a country whose economy is already plummeting, the fact that doors to innovation continue to close, not open, can’t bode well for the future.



Hannah Gais

Hannah is assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association, a nonresident fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and the managing editor of Her work has appeared in a number of national and international publications, including Al Jazeera America, U.S. News and World Report, First Things, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, Truthout, Business Insider and Foreign Policy in Focus.

Gais is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. and the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, where she focused on Eastern Christian Theology and European Studies. You can follow her on Twitter @hannahgais