Starting in April, new iPhones and other iOS devices sold in Russia will include an additional setup step. In addition to questions about language setting and Siri activation, users are presented with a screen asking them to install a list of Russian developer apps. It's not just a regional peculiarity. It's a concession Apple made to Moscow's legal pressure – one that could have repercussions well beyond Russia's borders.
The law in question dates back to 2019 when Russia mandated that all computers, smartphones, smart TVs, etc. sold there must be pre-installed with a selection of government-approved apps, including browsers, messenger platforms, and even antivirus services. Apple stopped shortly before; The suggested apps are not pre-installed and users can choose not to download them. The company's decision to change its pre-installation rules could inspire other repressive regimes to make similar or even more invasive requirements.
"This is related to years of increasing regulatory pressure on technology companies in Russia," says Adrian Shahbaz, director of democracy and technology at the non-profit Freedom House for Human Rights. The country has made massive efforts to reshape its internet towards mechanisms of control, censorship and mass surveillance. And the government has been imposing increasingly stringent regulations on domestic tech companies. "You need to store data on local servers, provide decryption keys to security agencies, and remove content that violates Russian law," says Shahbaz, although not all companies do all of these things. "And now they are forced to promote government-approved apps on their platforms."
The Preinstalled Apps Act became known as the "Law Against Apple" because Apple essentially dared to pull out of the Russian market entirely instead of changing the rules in the company's controlled iPhone ecosystem. Instead, Apple has worked out an exception that others, including Android manufacturers, don't. Google, which develops the open source operating system for Android mobile devices, does not directly manufacture most of the platform's hardware and does not control which apps are preinstalled on third-party devices. (Google makes the Pixel phone but doesn't sell it in Russia.)
Mikhail Klimarev, executive director of Internet Protection Society, a Russian non-governmental organization, believes the Preinstalled Apps Act has a dual role for the Kremlin. It provides the ability to promote apps that can monitor and control the country, while also allowing the government to manipulate the technology market. The law will penalize and punish any vendor who sells non-compliant computers and smartphones, not the manufacturers who made them – unless the company also sells its products directly in Russia, of course, as Apple does.
"The fact is that responsibility for the violation is placed not on the seller, but on the retailer," says Klimarev. "In this case, the law is (used) to destroy small vendors. And then the big vendors will raise their prices. In Russia, a lot of absurd laws have been passed recently that are technically impractical."
The situation with Russia's mandatory apps is not the first time Apple has faced invasive legal requirements from an authoritarian government, nor is it the first time the company has complied with those requirements. To continue operating in China, Apple agreed to use a domestic cloud provider to store its Chinese customers' iCloud data and encryption keys. And Apple will remove apps from its Chinese iOS app store if the government so requests. However, housing Russian apps during setup is a new frontier in how Apple interacts with repressive governments.
"This is part of a broader trend we've seen in countries like Iran, Turkey, and India," says Freedom House's Shahbaz. "The authorities are channeling frustration with popular overseas apps while promoting domestic equivalents where data and voice are more tightly controlled by the government. It's a bait and a switch."
From both an economic and a national perspective, it is understandable to some extent that governments would want to promote domestic software to their own citizens. In practice, however, the increasing Balkanization of the internet is undermining the worldwide freedom of the internet and undermining the whole concept of a decentralized, global web.
Apple's plan still offers users multiple options to remove government-imposed apps. However, promoting them during setup will inevitably lead to a wider diffusion of the software chosen by Russia. The apps are not specifically developed by the government, but the Kremlin, like many authoritarian governments, has a wide reach within its internet ecosystem. More widespread use of the favorite apps could lead to increased government access to Russian user data and personal information, or even situations where the government keeps track of which devices are using certain apps and which they have removed.
The question remains whether Russia's ultimate goal is to completely isolate and disconnect its internet from the world, or whether the government prefers a hybrid network. From the Kremlin's perspective, the ability to promote certain apps on iOS is a boon either way.
Apple could have simply allowed Russia to pre-install the apps it wanted on iOS devices, but the company could also have taken radical action against such disruptions. Instead, it struck a middle ground that other countries may use to serve their own autocratic interests.
This story originally appeared on wired.com.