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