Netflix and TikTok suspended most of their services in Russia on Sunday, as the government tightens restrictions on what citizens and media outlets can say about Russia’s conflict in Ukraine.
Pulling the plug on online entertainment — and information — is likely to further isolate the country and its people, coming after a growing number of multinational corporations have cut Russia off from vital financial services, technology, and a variety of consumer products in response to Western economic sanctions and global outrage over the invasion of Ukraine.
Visa, Mastercard, and American Express all announced over the weekend that they would discontinue service in Russia. Samsung Electronics, a leading supplier of both smartphones and computer chips from South Korea, announced a halt in product shipments to the country, joining other major technology companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Intel, and Dell.
And two of the so-called Big Four accounting firms announced on Sunday that they were withdrawing from the country. Both KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers announced that they would end their relationships with their Russia-based member firms, which employ thousands of people.
Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, urged US technology companies to do more to counter Russia on Sunday. He tweeted open letters requesting that Apple and Google close their app stores in Russia, as well as Amazon and Microsoft suspend their cloud computing services.
Internet service providers and app developers have been hesitant to take actions that could deprive Russian citizens of social media and other sources of information.
That changed on Friday when Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped up his crackdown on media outlets and individuals who do not toe the Kremlin line on the war, blocking Facebook and Twitter and signing legislation criminalizing the intentional spread of what Moscow considers “fake” news.
Netflix didn’t say why it was suspending services on Sunday, only that it was due to “circumstances on the ground.” The company had previously stated that it would refuse to broadcast Russian state television channels.
TikTok announced that Russian users of its popular social media app would no longer be able to post new videos or live streams, and they would also be unable to view videos shared from other parts of the world.
“In light of Russia’s new ‘fake news’ law, we have no choice but to suspend live streaming and new content to our video service while we investigate the safety implications of this law,” TikTok said in a tweet. “There will be no disruption to our in-app messaging service.”
TikTok spokesperson Hilary McQuaide stated that the TikTok app in Russia is now in “view-only” mode, preventing users from posting or viewing new videos or live streams. They can still view older videos, but only if they are from outside the country, according to her.
“The safety of our employees is our top priority,” she said, adding that the video-sharing service, which is part of the China-based tech company ByteDance, did not want to expose either its Russian employees or users to serious criminal penalties. Some protesters who took to the streets in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other Russian cities to condemn the invasion of Ukraine used social media platforms to spread their message.
The new “fake news” legislation, which was quickly approved by both houses of the Kremlin-controlled parliament and signed by Putin, imposes prison sentences of up to 15 years for those who spread information contradicting the Russian government’s narrative on the war.
Several news organizations have also stated that they will take a break from reporting inside Russia to assess the situation. Russian authorities have repeatedly and incorrectly labeled reports of Russian military defeats or civilian deaths in Ukraine as “fake news.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is referred to as a “special military operation” rather than war or invasion by state media outlets.
The law envisages sentences of up to three years or fines for spreading what authorities deem to be false news about the military, but the maximum punishment rises to 15 years for cases deemed to have led to “severe consequences.”