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Russia: The Absent Activists

A Eurasianet partner post from Coda

Silicon Valley’s extraordinarily wealthy and powerful companies, which have advocated forcefully for LGBT rights throughout America, are remaining silent about Putin’s anti-gay laws as they pursue the Russian market.
 
In March 2015, when the Re­pub­li­can gov­er­nor of the state of In­di­ana, Mike Pence, signed a so-called “re­li­gious free­dom” law that would per­mit busi­nesses to refuse to serve gay cus­tomers, his ac­tion pro­voked a fierce re­sponse from cor­po­rate lead­ers clus­tered halfway across the con­ti­nent on the West Coast. The San Fran­cisco bil­lion­aire Marc Be­nioff, whose Sales­force.com had paid $2.5 bil­lion only two years ear­lier to buy a soft­ware com­pany with 2,000 em­ploy­ees in In­di­anapo­lis, took to Twit­ter for his salvo: “To­day we are can­cel­ing all pro­grams that re­quire our cus­tomers/​em­ploy­ees to travel to In­di­ana to face dis­crim­i­na­tion,” he de­clared.
 
Soon Be­nioff joined to­gether with 70 other top ex­ec­u­tives of tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies—in­clud­ing Airbn­b’s Brian Chesky, Net­flix’s Reed Hast­ings, Mi­crosoft’s Satya Nadella, and Cis­co’s Gary Moore—to sign a state­ment op­pos­ing the le­gal­iza­tion of LGBT dis­crim­i­na­tion. And Ap­ple’s openly-gay CEO, Tim Cook, pub­lished an opin­ion col­umn in the Wash­ing­ton Post to let peo­ple know “around the world” that “re­gard­less of what the law might al­low in In­di­ana…we will never tol­er­ate dis­crim­i­na­tion.” Cook con­cluded: “Op­pos­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion takes courage. With the lives and dig­nity of so many peo­ple at stake, its time for all of us to be coura­geous.” Days later, Sales­force.com’s top ex­ec­u­tive in In­di­ana stood by the side of the leg­is­la­ture’s re­cal­ci­trant Re­pub­li­can lead­ers as they an­nounced a new law clar­i­fy­ing that the state’s “re­li­gious free­dom” act did­n’t con­done dis­crim­i­na­tion based on gen­der.
 
The quick, de­ci­sive vic­tory in In­di­ana res­onated world­wide, and the news in­spired the hopes of Russ­ian ac­tivists that Amer­i­ca’s pro­gres­sive techno-moguls would fi­nally speak up against Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay laws. But the Sil­i­con Val­ley lead­ers still haven’t sum­moned nearly enough courage for that much tougher fight.
 
An Amer­i­can sales ex­ec­u­tive trav­el­ing to­day to Moscow—where the state sanc­tions per­se­cu­tion and con­dones vi­o­lence against LGBTQ peo­ple—could nonethe­less pa­tron­ize many of the same brands that serve him in San Fran­cisco or Seat­tle or New York City, in­clud­ing the com­pa­nies that force­fully op­posed the In­di­ana law: He could stay at an Airbnb apart­ment rental in Moscow, which has emerged as one of the ser­vice’s top mar­kets world­wide. (Airbnb has a Moscow of­fice with sev­eral em­ploy­ees and owns a small Russ­ian de­sign firm.) The trav­eler could get chauf­feured around town by Uber dri­vers, drink lattes from Star­bucks, stream video on Net­flix, and buy an iPhone or iPad or Mac­Book at a re­tail shop or or­der one di­rectly from Ap­ple’s Russ­ian-lan­guage on­line store. (Ap­ple has sold more than 1 mil­lion iPhones a year in Rus­sia). He could search for sales leads and con­tacts and gauge cus­tomers’ at­ti­tudes in Rus­sia us­ing Sales­force.com’s ”so­cial lis­ten­ing soft­ware.” If he was con­duct­ing busi­ness with the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment, he would surely en­counter bu­reau­crats us­ing PCs that ran on Mi­crosoft Win­dows op­er­at­ing sys­tem and were net­worked by routers made by Cisco, which is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the U.S. Jus­tice De­part­ment and Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion for al­legedly mas­ter­mind­ing a mas­sive scheme of kick­backs and bribes to se­cure con­tracts with Rus­si­a’s gov­ern­ment, mil­i­tary, and in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions.
 
Amer­i­ca’s pro­gres­sive com­pa­nies have re­mained con­spic­u­ously silent about Putin’s anti-gay laws while they’ve con­tin­ued to pur­sue Rus­si­a’s mar­ket­place. As in­flu­en­tial as the Sil­i­con Val­ley ti­tans might seem in their home coun­try, where lo­cal of­fi­cials crave the in­vest­ment and em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties they can bring, they’re fac­ing a pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion in Rus­sia, where Putin has be­come in­creas­ingly an­tag­o­nis­tic to­wards them over the past sev­eral years. His regime has cracked down on In­ter­net com­pa­nies in its ef­forts to sup­press free speech and po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion. Last year it be­gan re­quir­ing that for­eign com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing in Rus­sia keep their data on servers on Rus­sia soil, where the gov­ern­ment can ac­cess it.
 
In re­sponse Google shut­tered its re­search and de­vel­op­ment op­er­a­tion in Moscow, mov­ing an es­ti­mated 50 to 100 en­gi­neers over­seas. Mi­crosoft re­lo­cated its Skype de­vel­op­ment team from Moscow to Prague, and Adobe pulled all its em­ploy­ees.
 
Google, which ri­vals Rus­si­a’s home­grown Yan­dex in the In­ter­net search busi­ness there, ap­pears to have flaunted Rus­si­a’s data server law or at least de­layed tak­ing ac­tion so far. (Google as well as Face­book and Twit­ter were granted vague ex­ten­sions). But Uber and EBay are re­port­edly fol­low­ing the new reg­u­la­tions, and the Russ­ian busi­ness daily Kom­m­er­sant has re­ported that even Ap­ple is com­ply­ing, too. If this is true —Ap­ple has­n’t com­mented pub­licly on the mat­ter— then Putin’s regime could gain ac­cess to Rus­sians’ per­sonal troves of pho­tographs and videos and text mes­sages and find what they’ve been read­ing and lis­ten­ing to and watch­ing. Such a ca­pit­u­la­tion would rep­re­sent a per­ilous strike against the pri­vacy of all of Ap­ple’s Russ­ian cus­tomers, and it would be es­pe­cially dan­ger­ous for LGBTQ peo­ple there.
 
Only a few years ago Rus­sia was court­ing Amer­i­ca’s top tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies rather than fight­ing them. In 2010 Pres­i­dent Dmitry Medvedev vis­ited the cor­po­rate head­quar­ters of Ap­ple and Google in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. On his mis­sion he talked up his plans for Rus­si­a’s am­bi­tious ef­fort to cre­ate its own ver­sion of Sil­i­con Val­ley: the Skolkovo tech­nol­ogy park de­vel­op­ment on the out­skirts of Moscow. Medvedev suc­ceeded in en­tic­ing lead­ing Amer­i­can ven­ture cap­i­tal firms to com­mit to in­vest in this nascent tech­nol­ogy “hub,” which was planned for 100,000 work­ers.
 
But the Sil­i­con Val­ley-Moscow al­liance be­gan splin­ter­ing in early 2014, when the Hu­man Rights Cam­paign, a promi­nent Amer­i­can gay-rights ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion, called on the of­fi­cial spon­sors of the Win­ter Olympics in Sochi to protest Putin’s anti-gay laws. Spon­sors such as Mc­Don­ald’s and Coca-Cola re­frained from ex­plic­itly ad­dress­ing the is­sue, but the ac­tivists’ ag­i­ta­tion helped to elicit ges­tures of sup­port from a cou­ple of ma­jor tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies: AT&T, a long­time spon­sor of the U.S. Olympic Com­mit­tee (though not of the Sochi win­ter games), is­sued a state­ment on its blog, and Google re­cast its home­page logo with il­lus­tra­tions of Olympic ath­letes su­per­im­posed on the col­ors of the rain­bow flag.
 
But the real fis­sure came soon af­ter the Olympics, when Russ­ian forces an­nexed Crimea—and Amer­i­ca’s tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies com­plied with the U.S. gov­ern­men­t’s sanc­tions against the in­vader. Rus­si­a’s cur­rent “In­ter­net czar,” Ger­man Kli­menko, who is push­ing for a steep hike in taxes on Amer­i­can tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, re­cently told Bloomberg Busi­ness­Week that this com­pli­ance marked a “point of no re­turn” for Rus­si­a’s re­la­tion­ship with Sil­i­con Val­ley firms.
 
In April 2014, Putin ap­peared on Russ­ian tele­vi­sion and claimed that the In­ter­net had be­gun as a “CIA pro­ject” and re­mained a tool for the Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence agency. Months later, in Oc­to­ber, when Ap­ple’s Tim Cook came out as the first openly-gay chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of a For­tune 500 com­pany, the news pro­voked a back­lash from the Russ­ian es­tab­lish­ment. Vi­taly Milonov, a mem­ber of par­lia­ment who helped in­sti­gate the na­tion’s anti-gay laws, called on Rus­sia to bar Tim Cook from ever en­ter­ing the coun­try: “What could he bring us? The Ebola virus, AIDS, gon­or­rhea? They all have un­seemly ties over there. Ban him for life.” And a mon­u­ment to the late Steve Jobs, which en­shrined the en­tre­pre­neur’s im­age on 6-foot-high replica of an iPhone, was dis­man­tled and re­moved from a col­lege in St. Pe­ters­burg, where it had been erected by a con­sor­tium of Russ­ian com­pa­nies.
 
Ap­ple and Cook him­self never com­mented pub­licly about this ha­rass­ment, and soon af­ter the com­pany pushed ahead and aired its first-ever com­mer­cials on Russ­ian tele­vi­sion. Since then Ap­ple has­n’t re­sponded to any of the on­go­ing Russ­ian at­tacks against its gay-friend­li­ness. The com­pany ig­nored Russ­ian gov­ern­ment mem­ber Alexan­der Star­avoitov’s ac­cu­sa­tion that it was spread­ing “gay pro­pa­ganda” by of­fer­ing U2’s al­bum “Songs of In­no­cence” as a free down­load for cus­tomers who up­graded their op­er­at­ing sys­tems. And Ap­ple re­mained silent when the Russ­ian me­dia re­ported last Sep­tem­ber that the Russ­ian po­lice were in­ves­ti­gat­ing it for pro­mul­gat­ing “gay” emoji de­pict­ing same-sex peo­ple hold­ing hands and kiss­ing.
 
Putin’s an­tag­o­nism to Sil­i­con Val­ley has been costly to Rus­si­a’s eco­nomic as­pi­ra­tions. Amer­i­can ven­ture cap­i­tal in­vestors have been pulling their fund­ing, and tech star­tups have been flee­ing the coun­try. And the Skolkovo tech hub out­side Moscow has peaked at only around 25,000 work­ers, a frac­tion of Medvede­v’s grand as­pi­ra­tions.
 
Be­cause of Putin’s hos­til­ity to for­eign tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, he may be los­ing one of the most promis­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to di­ver­sify Russ­ian in­dus­try be­yond its heavy re­liance on nat­ural re­sources. The econ­omy has suf­fered greatly from the sharp de­clines in oil prices, but Putin’s regime has­n’t re­lented.
 
Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies are less likely to take the risk of ag­i­tat­ing for gay rights in Rus­sia when they no longer have em­ploy­ees on the ground there. Sales­force.com pro­vided a state­ment to Co­daS­tory that par­tially ex­plains the seem­ing in­con­sis­tency be­tween its ac­tivism at home and its ab­sence on LGBT rights in Rus­sia. “Last year we took a pub­lic stance in In­di­ana be­cause our em­ploy­ees there brought the is­sue to our lead­er­ship,” said the state­ment. But while the com­pany sells soft­ware for tap­ping the Russ­ian mar­ket, it does­n’t ac­tu­ally main­tain an of­fice with em­ploy­ees in Rus­sia who could de­mand ac­tion from head­quar­ters in San Fran­cisco. (Ap­ple, Airbnb, and Star­bucks, which do have em­ploy­ees in Rus­sia, did­n’t re­spond to re­quests for in­ter­views).
 
Even though the Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies have been clos­ing lo­cal of­fices and bring­ing home their en­gi­neers from Rus­sia, they’re still com­pet­ing re­lent­lessly for mar­ket share in an emerg­ing econ­omy that al­ready has 84 mil­lion In­ter­net users. Un­less they’re will­ing to risk los­ing ac­cess to Rus­si­a’s large and promis­ing mar­ket­place, the Sil­i­con Val­ley moguls will ul­ti­mately have to play by Putin’s rules. And that means it’s un­likely that their cru­sade for gay rights will ex­tend to Moscow or St. Pe­ters­burg. If any­thing, their ac­qui­es­cence to Rus­si­a’s in­sis­tence on stor­ing all data within Rus­sia will do even more to im­peril the per­se­cuted LBGTQ pop­u­la­tion.

Alan Deutschman is the author of The Second Coming of Steve Jobs and holds the Reynolds Endowed Chair in Business Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.

A Eurasianet partner post from Coda

Russia: The Absent Activists

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