If I told you that this blog would touch on the thorny issues of national security, privacy and even espionage in the context of the mobile industry, you would be forgiven for thinking of a certain Chinese company.
However, I’ll try (my best) to make sure that was the only time Huawei is mentioned.
Last month, it was Russia and its ever-controversial President Vladimir Putin which captured the headlines, after he signed legislation banning the future sale of certain communications devices in the country that do not have pre-installed Russian software.
The bill, due to be put into force in July 2020, will cover certain smartphones, computers and smart televisions that are yet to be determined, and means the devices will be required to include both mainstream software such as Android and iOS, along with a Russian-made option.
An interesting, albeit controversial move. But why has it come about?
The bill’s co-author Oleg Nikolayev stated the driving force behind the move was to give consumers a choice between using native western software and Russian alternatives, as the government looks to boost the use of domestic technology.
Mikita Hanets, cybersecurity research analyst at Frost and Sullivan, is however not convinced by the narrative, arguing both end-users and Russian technology companies could be severely impacted.
Starting with the latter, Hanets believes it is “unlikely” consumers’ best interests are at heart.
“The intention of pre-installing applications suggests that the Russian government is willing to bypass some of the checks that vendor-approved digital distribution services have,” Hanets told Mobile World Live.
“Moreover, the government’s involvement in the determination of software that better addresses the needs of Russian customers is another reason to question the official narrative that justifies the passing of the law,” he said.
This piece of legislation follows a long line of tougher laws around the internet imposed by Putin’s government over the years.
These include calls for messaging services to share encryption keys and a sovereign internet law giving the government powers to restrict certain web traffic in the country.
The Kremlin argued these rules, along with the new device software law, will also help to improve cybersecurity in the country.
Linking the latest push to Russia’s wider ambitions around digital sovereignty, Hanets believes the restrictions around software will have two major consequences.
The first will create an uneven playing field, in which Russian developers will be able to better serve the market compared with western and Asian counterparts. And the second will serve to strengthen digital defence in the country.
“The latter goal is likely to entail serious privacy concerns for end-users that have pre-installed government-approved software on their devices,” he warned.
Meanwhile, although Russian software manufacturers are likely to benefit from the move economically, they may find themselves in a position whereby they are unable to fulfil conditions set by the government.
“Should they make concessions to the Russian government, they will lose their standing as vendors committed to protecting their customers’ personal information and face a domestic political backlash,” Hanets said. “Should they ignore the demands of the Russian government, they will likely lose some of their market share in Russia. Ultimately, the Russian government is the only clear winner in this situation.”
The anti-Apple law
Immediately after Putin signed the legislation into law, Russia’s Association of Trading Companies and Manufacturers of Household Electrical Equipment and Computers (RATEK) warned implementation of the law could see international companies pull out of the market.
RATEK added it could be impossible for some companies to install alternative software on certain devices.
Apple products, of course, are renowned for being closed-off from third party applications.
Writing in Forbes, founder of cybersecurity specialist Digital Barriers Zak Doffman backed-up RATEK’s fears, stating western tech giants could well leave the market rather than compromise their policies.
He highlighted Apple had already reportedly warned Russia of the likely implications of the move and is likely to fight the legislation.
“It’s easy to see why,” wrote Doffman. “The company could then find itself subject to similar legislation in multiple markets around the world, with limited controls on the nature, provenance and supply chain integrity of the software being installed.”
Hanets concurred, stating Apple in particular was “unlikely to undermine its standing as one of the most privacy-centred vendors for the mass market”.
With the implementation of law still some time away, there is every chance that the situation could change.
However, Hanets wouldn’t bet on President Putin being the one to back down.
In fact, the reaction from western tech companies and critics of the move could well have been not only expected by the Russian government, but welcomed.
“The law will inevitably lead to further economic, political and digital isolation of Russia from the west”, he said. “It is likely, however, that this outcome is not an unintended consequence of the law, but the goal. The further disintegration of Russia from the wider technology ecosystem falls in line with Russian strategic information security objectives.”
Russia’s stance has inevitably been likened to the China’s controlled policies on US technology, often described as the “great firewall”.
And in a wider context, Russia’s efforts provide another chapter in a growing split in the sector between East and West, a story in which that same Chinese company has been the chief protagonist so far.
Oops. I got so far.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.