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Google, Meta risk penalties in Russia for failing to open local offices

Facebook, Google and Twitter logos are seen in this collage. Photo: Reuters

Alphabet Inc’s, Google, and Facebook owner Meta Platforms Inc are among internet companies facing possible punitive measures in Russia after failing to open local offices and take other measures required by a communications law.

Reuters reports that Russian legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin has obliged foreign social media companies with more than 500,000 daily users to open local offices since July 2021 or be subject to restrictions as severe as outright bans.

In November, state communications regulator Roskomnadzor listed 13 companies it wanted to set up officially on Russian soil and last month said it would start imposing restrictions by the end of February.

Ahead of Monday’s deadline, only a few had complied. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week has added to pressure on Western businesses to push back on Putin in any way possible.

The new rules also require companies to register with Russian communications regulator Roskomnadzor and have a system for fielding user complaints.

Apple Inc and Spotify Technology SA had fully complied before the fighting began in Ukraine, and Roskomnadzor’s website on Monday also showed Rakuten Group Inc’s messaging app Viber had completed all required steps.

6 other companies had fulfilled at least 1 policy but had not established a Russian legal entity or local office. Those were Google, Meta, Twitter Inc, ByteDance’s TikTok, Zoom Video Communications Inc, JOYY Inc’s video app Likee, the government website showed late Monday.

4 companies – chat tool Discord, Amazon.com Inc’s live streaming unit Twitch, messaging app Telegram, and bookmarking service Pinterest Inc – had taken no steps to comply, according to the website.

Likee said its Feb. 16 filing to form a Russian legal entity is under review and that it plans to comply with the law. Twitter declined to comment while the other 11 companies did not respond to requests for comment.

Last month, Roskomnadzor said it would begin barring non-compliant companies from selling ads in Russia. It previously has said blocking access to the targeted services would be the last resort, and those other penalties could include limiting data collection and money transfers.

The regulation is a part of a wider campaign for internet control that critics say threatens individual and corporate freedom. Authorities in Russia have issued small fines to social media companies in the last year for ignoring their demands to censor anti-government activists or information.

Russia, which calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation,” has curtailed access to Facebook in recent days in retaliation for censoring state media services, which critics say promote fake news and propaganda. Twitter has also been slow to access on mobile devices.

Demand for virtual private networking (VPN) apps, which can help with circumventing internet restrictions, has surged in Russia amid the latest crackdown. Three of the top five most downloaded apps on Apple’s App Store on Monday were VPNs, and they generated a combined 383,000 installs over the past seven days, 15 times more than the prior seven-day period, according to estimates from tracker Sensor Tower. 

Russia, which has a population of about 144 million, had nearly 51 million users on Instagram and 7.5 million on Facebook as of last November, according to research outfit Insider Intelligence.

Writing by Muzha Kucha