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Why is the Duma working to mandate pre-installed Russian-made apps on all devices sold in Russia? The answer isn't as simple as you'd think.

Source: Meduza
Sergey Savostyanov / TASS / Vida Press

On November 5, Russia’s State Duma approved the first reading of a new bill that would obligate non-Russian producers of smartphones, computers, and smart TVs to pre-install Russian-made apps on their devices. If it ultimately becomes law, the bill will likely take effect on July 1, 2020. Under the legislation, the executive branch of the Russian government would determine which applications electronics companies would have to pre-install. However, companies that do not comply with those recommendations would only face a fine of up to 200,000 rubles ($3,130), a pittance for an international giant like Apple or Google. The sponsors of the new bill include legislators from all of the Duma’s political factions. They have argued that mandating the installation of certain apps would provide a necessary convenience boost for elderly consumers. However, other sources told Meduza that the bill was actually a Kremlin initiative tied to Russia’s efforts to make its Internet traffic less dependent on the World Wide Web.

The pre-installation bill was co-sponsored by a pan-partisan group of legislators. One of their aims was to protect Russian companies.

The explanatory note attached to the new bill argues that its purpose is to allow Russians to use certain devices without having to install additional mobile apps. The bill’s co-sponsors also suggest that pre-installing Russian-made apps will help “protect Russian Internet companies.”

Among the bill’s signatories, one can find members of every official political faction within the State Duma. There are three members of United Russia, the country’s ruling party (Vladimir Gutenev, Sergey Chindyaskin, and Alexey Kanayev); one Liberal Democratic Party member, Sergei Zhigarev; one member of A Just Russia, Oleg Nikolayev; and one Communist Party representative, Alexander Yushchenko. Their legislation was first introduced into the Duma on July 18. Zhigarev had previously come forward with a similar proposal, but his version carried much larger fines: up to 1 million rubles (now $15,660). Vedomosti has reported that the Communications Ministry also developed a similar piece of legislation that was never submitted to the Duma for consideration. In April, the Federal Antimonopoly Service led the way with its own recommendations for pre-installing Russian software on new smartphones.

One of the bill’s sponsors has also argued that the plan would help the elderly. He was unable to name specific applications to be installed for that purpose.

Alexander Yushchenko told Meduza that the draft of the bill that has now passed its first reading stemmed from discussions of an earlier version Sergey Zhigarev submitted on the committee level.

“Technology continues to develop, and legislation should follow suit,” Yushchenko said. “The pre-installation of domestically produced programmatic services has been demanded by our citizens. Of course, many people can install whatever they want on their smartphones or computers themselves, but more senior individuals may encounter problems, and they need help.”

When asked which applications might be designated as programs required for pre-installation, Yushchenko named Gosuslugi, the Russian government services app, but then walked back that recommendation, saying it was only his own hypothesis. The Duma deputy asserted that all governments have certain requirements for technology companies that operate on their soil.

Sources within the Duma say it was the Kremlin who started the bill. They also say its primary objective is “Internet sovereignty.”

Two sources close to the State Duma’s leadership told Meduza that the bill was actually introduced into Russia’s parliamentary system from within the country’s executive branch. Bills with that provenance are almost always signed by members of every Duma faction. One source noted that the Duma deputies who co-sponsored the bill often take up legislation that the Kremlin or the executive branch push through for their own purposes.

“The goal is obvious: It’s all about the idea of a ‘sovereign Internet,’” said one legislative source. “The president isn’t very worried about domestic issues, but the ‘sovereignization’ of the Internet does concern him. Bureaucrats from his administration, from the State Duma, and from the broader executive branch have all been bringing their proposals to him. The bill on pre-installing applications is part of that series.”

Like Yushchenko, this source named Gosuslugi as one application that might be required for pre-installation; he also pointed to the apps produced by Russian tech giant Yandex. “This is a very gentle, vegetarian version of the bill. You could even call it populistic. Manufacturers practically don’t have to do anything — they just have to install free applications. But then, after this move, more serious steps can be taken,” the source added. He did not specify what those steps might be.

Alexander Yushchenko and multiple sources within the Duma said that mandating the installation of any applications that track users’ locations or transfer their data to law enforcement is out of the question for this proposal. “We’re being tracked in any case, and this isn’t about intelligence services,” Yushchenko told Meduza.

Some are calling the bill “the law against Apple.” Employees have already said their company might leave the Russian market if it passes.

The central opponent of mandatory third-party software installations in Russia has been Apple. “A mandate to add third-party applications to Apple’s ecosystem would be equivalent to jailbreaking [gaining unauthorized access to a device’s file system]. It would pose a security threat, and the company cannot tolerate that kind of risk,” a source within Apple told the newspaper Kommersant in April of 2019. Company representatives have said they do not consider the Russian market to be strategically significant and might therefore leave that market entirely if the pre-installation law passes.

Alexander Yushchenko said he found it unfortunate that the bill he is co-sponsoring has been discussed primarily in the context of Apple’s possible exit from Russia. “That won’t happen. What kind of company would willingly yield a market to its opponents?” Yushchenko argued. Meduza’s source close to the State Duma leadership expressed a similar level of certainty that Apple will not be leaving Russia anytime soon.

Between now and November 18, amendments can be made to the bill that the State Duma’s deputies can then accept or reject during the proposal’s second reading. Yushchenko told Meduza that the Duma has not received any recommendations to that end from the companies whose operations the bill would affect.

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Report by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Hilah Kohen

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