Technical embargo harms Russian opponents more than helps Ukraine

When Olga Kitina She took to the streets of Moscow on February 24 to protest the invasion of Ukraine, knowing the price she might pay. The 31-year-old psychiatrist has been staunchly opposed to Putin’s regime since 2011, even volunteering for the opposition party in the 2013 elections. Not only did you hear the atrocities of dissidents, but you also watched the disturbing videos: footage smuggled out of a nasty OTB-1 prison Reputation by Sergey Savelyev, a Belarusian man who was imprisoned for the first time in 2013. The videos were not news to her. activists, but they were evidence of torture and systematic rape.

Despite this danger, Kitina took to the streets. Fortunately she escaped arrest that night, and after seven days she fled the country, joining at least tens of thousands of other opponents. Kitina and her husband, a successful Russian lawyer, combined their lives in one suitcase, frantically withdrew all the money they could from ATMs in Moscow, and went on separate trips to Tbilisi, Georgia, afraid that flying together might be more likely to be stopped by Border guards are arrested and what is worse. “Everything was changing, like every hour,” Kitina says. She was worried that someone would stop her at the border, whether she had taken everything she needed, and if her husband would leave her behind. There were “rumours that the government would close the borders, at least for the men.”

But because of Big Tech’s sanctions – and not the government – Kitina left not only her country behind, but her clients as well. Kitina is the founder of Alter, the first technology platform that connects Russian psychotherapists with those looking for therapy. Today, her company supports hundreds of mental health providers and more than 38,000 customers, and is completely blocked from its data.

Alter relied on the ubiquitous US email company Mailchimp to collect subscriber data and communicate with users. On March 14, Inuit, which operates Mailchimp, along with Turbo Tax, Credit Karma and several other financial software products, suspended all customer accounts in Russia. Now, in the midst of war, while her clients face untold mental health crises, Kitina and countless others have been cut off from their patients. There was no legal reason for Mailchimp to freeze his service for Alter, and certainly no reason to keep the $1,485 monthly fee. But what Kitina finds utterly indefensible is how the company has (without warning) separated her from its customers.

When Russian tanks overran the Ukrainian border, much of the world came together to support the Ukrainian people. Some of the solidarity was symbolic, such as the yellow and blue avatars plastered across social media. Some were as deadly as the Javelin missiles that now incinerate Russian tanks. But perhaps no support for Ukraine has been as clumsy and misleading as the response of the big tech companies.

Extended sanctions from Western governments sought to isolate the Russian economy and punish the regime. While these measures are unprecedented, corporate sanctions have gone even further, suspending businesses in ways that far exceed what is required by law or what governments intend. Among many other things: Google has stopped all ad sales and Play Store billing, Visa and Mastercard have closed international transactions for Russian account holders, and consumer brands from Coke to McDonald’s to Starbucks have closed shop in Russia. But with so many restrictions placed on tech companies, in particular, it is Russia’s opponents, not the ruling oligarchs, who are hurting.

Other dissident Russian entrepreneurs have faced similar stories. Until recently, Ksenia Babat resided in Moscow, where she founded Babat Consulting, described as “the first diversity and inclusion consulting firm in Russia.” But she was forced to quit much of her business when she left Russia on 12 March. It was affected by a wide range of Western sanctions and business boycotts, which made it impossible for it to collect payments and communicate with customers. But like Kitina, Mailchimp ruined Babat’s work fighting for inclusion. She says, “Not only did Mailchimp leave the market, it kept our distribution lists without giving us the opportunity to make a copy of it.” “A lot of entrepreneurs lost their database of thousands of customers in just one day,” she says.

And the tech giant’s grip extends far beyond the ranks of entrepreneurs. According to Russian journalist Kevin Rothrock, Airbnb will exclude any guests who attempt to verify their identity with Russian documents. The restrictions on Visa and Mastercard only apply to international transactions, leaving those in Russia relatively untouched but cutting off dissidents and journalists who have fled their Russian origins. Many fleeing Putin’s regime could end up living on the streets simply because they were brave enough to stand up to injustice and had to leave their homes.

I have no doubts that the tech giants want to do the right thing. I have no doubt that they tried to stand with Ukraine in their time of need. But what is increasingly clear is that these companies are simply unable to wield the power they now wield on the global stage. We often hear how big tech companies are more like countries than companies. While this may be true when it comes to their scope of influence, it is rarely true of how they use that influence. Instead of making sober and thoughtful decisions, they respond recklessly in the hope of good PR. But judging by press releases is not a way to make life-changing decisions in wartime.

Rather than legitimizing more corporate dysfunction on the global stage, corporations must defer to the elected leaders of world governments. Rather than trying to sanction PR points, tech companies should follow government guidelines on the ground. And companies like Intuit should try to remedy the damage they’ve already done by letting users (at least) extract their data. Big tech companies are simply not equipped to deal with the power they have amassed, and in this unique humanitarian crisis, it’s time for the tech giants to admit it.

The corporate governance debate may seem academic in the midst of human rights catastrophes, but the consequences are all very real for ketina patients. “When the data was blocked, I was afraid that we would lose contact with some customers and… that they would think we had abandoned them,” she says. For Kitina, account closures and financial restrictions have created a “feeling of being left out.” For Babat, the lessons for Russian opponents were much simpler: “We all have to pay for someone else’s decisions.”

The author and Olga Kitina are both 2022 TED Fellows.


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