Policy

Russian sanctions could be a legal landmine for messaging apps

Human rights advocates are urging Biden not to let sanctions interfere with the free flow of information in Russia.

Police block Red Square ahead of a planned unsanctioned protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in central Moscow.

As global sanctions against Russia escalate, tech companies and human rights groups alike are now worried that they will soon find themselves in murky legal territory.

Photo: Alexander Nemenvo/AFP via Getty Images

Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, U.S. tech giants like Meta and Google have insisted on keeping lines of communication open inside Russia as much as possible, if only to ensure that Russian people have access to information that hasn’t been censored or spun up by the government.

But as global sanctions against Russia escalate, tech companies and human rights groups alike are now worried that they will soon find themselves in murky legal territory.

On Thursday, dozens of digital rights groups, including some backed by U.S. tech giants, sent an open letter to the Biden administration expressing their concern about current legal uncertainty and called on the U.S. and other governments to make it clear that apps and other services that enable personal communication by Russian people are not implicated by sanctions.

“It is not clear whether the U.S. government explicitly authorizes the lawful provision of even the most simple internet applications, services, or software in Russia at the moment,” reads the letter, signed by groups including Access Now, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Wikimedia Foundation and others.

The letter notes that Cogent, a major provider of internet infrastructure to Russia, has already pulled out of the country, citing sanctions as one reason. “The economic sanctions put in place as a result of the invasion and the increasingly uncertain security situation make it impossible for Cogent to continue to provide you with service,” Cogent reportedly wrote in a message to customers.

The groups behind the letter argue that any restrictions on Russian people’s access to the internet would “further isolate the embattled pro-democracy and anti-war activists, and impede the ability of NGOs, human rights groups, journalists, and attorneys inside and outside Russia to provide critical information to citizens about the current state of affairs and their rights.”

The groups are asking for the U.S. government to specifically authorize services that enable communication — think free messaging apps and browsers — and to keep these concerns in mind if and when additional sanctions are introduced.

In other countries where the U.S. has broader sanctions, including Iran, it has at times issued special exemptions, called general licenses, for personal communication technology. It’s why Google has managed to serve ads from U.S. companies in Iran, Syria and Cuba. It may not be a great deal for advertisers who aren’t particularly interested in the Syrian market, but it’s at least not illegal.

These licenses are key to getting risk-averse legal teams inside U.S. tech companies to feel comfortable continuing operations, said Jason Pielemeier, deputy director of the Global Network Initiative, a non-profit group that works with large tech companies including Meta and Google, as well as civil rights groups, to promote free expression online. “Compliance lawyers within companies are the most conservative people on earth. Their job is to make sure the companies don’t come anywhere close to breaking the law,” he said.

Prior to working for GNI, Pielemeier worked for the State Department’s human rights bureau, where he said he once had to go on a roadtrip to Silicon Valley just to implore tech companies to take advantage of the communications exemptions in Iran. “We were like, ‘We really mean it. We put this exception in place for a reason. We want you to use it,’” Pielemeier said.

The groups behind the letter are asking the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to issue a similar license for personal communications in Russia.

That might be somewhat premature. A spokesperson for the Treasury said the agency issues those licenses when a jurisdictional ban is in place. Right now, the Russia ban is targeted at specific individuals and institutions, meaning personal communications tech among Russian people is allowed by default. Where the U.S. has sanctioned entire regions, as in Donetsk and Luhansk, it has already issued general licenses authorizing telecommunications and mail as well as personal communications.

Still, human rights advocates and tech companies are mostly concerned about what’s coming next and whether the free flow of communication in and out of Russia will remain a top priority. That’s true of U.S. sanctions, but also sanctions from other prominent Western governments.

Already, tech companies are facing tremendous pressure to pull out of Russia altogether. Some of that is internal pressure from the Russian government, which has imposed new censorship responsibilities on companies, prompting TikTok to restrict new content there. Facebook, meanwhile, has had no choice in the matter, after the Russian government blocked the platform entirely inside the country.

But a lot of the pressure is coming from global governments and top Ukrainian officials themselves. Through the letter, advocates are warning the Biden administration not to institutionalize that pressure through sanctions.

“We want to make sure whatever we do in the name of the Ukrainian people and in the name of condemning Russian aggression is consistent with human rights norms,” Pielemeier said. “If in the haste to condemn and respond, we undermine that foundation of commitment to and demonstrated reliance on those international rules, we undermine our message and potentially give Putin and the Russians ammunition to fire back against Western governments.”

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