The next six months could see a major dogfight between Apple and the Kremlin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law on December 2mandating foreign smart devices sold in Russia come pre-installed with a list of government-approved Russian apps. The list has not been drawn up yet.
The law is part of a pattern of legislation granting the Russian state greater control over its citizens’ digital lives, including the creation of an isolated “sovereign internet.” More specifically however this law poses a major problem to Apple, which doesn’t allow third-party apps to come pre-installed on its devices. The new bill is sometimes informally referred to as the “law against Apple.”
Apple fiercely guards its right to only have its homegrown apps pre-installed on iPhones and iPads, arguing pre-installing only its own apps improves its phones’ performance, battery life, privacy, and security. The policy drew antitrust scrutiny from US lawmakers in October last year because of the home advantage it gives Apple’s apps.
The new Russian law will come into force in July of this year, and Apple has until then to decide how it will react. Per Forbes’ translation of Russian weekly The Bell, Apple has been in contact with Kremlin officials and warned the company might “revis[e] its business model in Russia.”
This reportedly rankled Russian officials, who pointed to China as an example where US tech giants such as Apple abide by local laws and restrictions. But Russia’s leverage over Apple is much smaller than China’s, given its relatively small market size. Other major tech firms have struggled to gain traction in Russia, with homegrown companies such as Mail.Ru and Yandex dominating email, social, and search.
Apple has not released any official statement on the law, and did not respond to Business Insider when asked for comment. It is foreseeable that the tech giant could withdraw from Russia altogether rather than set the precedent of allowing a country’s government to insert third-party apps into iPhones.
The apps also throw up an ethical dilemma, as Russian digital rights activists have voiced the concern that the government-chosen apps could be used to surveil people.
Apple has yielded to political pressure from Russia before. In November last year it altered Apple Maps and its Weather app for Russian users to show Crimea — which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014 — as part of Russia. The annexation is opposed by the United Nations, which deemed it invalid. Subsequently Apple said it was “taking a deeper look at how we handle disputed borders in our services.”
The last two months of 2019 have set the stage for 2020, and Apple may find itself increasingly at the center of geopolitical tensions between America and its rivals — much as Huawei has become a lens for the US-China trade war.