The world’s biggest companies are ceasing to provide services in Russia – from Visa and Mastercard to oil companies to Disney and Netflix – in an effort to squeeze the country socially and financially in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And some of the tech companies who’ve stayed online, including Facebook and Twitter, have now been shut down or censored by the Russian government to slow down the transmission of anti-war messaging among Russian citizens.
How should the WordPress community – the experts behind the software ecosystem that powers 43 percent of the internet – respond? Should we participate in what are effectively non-governmental tech sanctions against Russia, or should we try to remain neutral, allowing Russians access to software that might allow them to communicate and share information more freely? In today’s article, I’ll look at the pros and cons of each approach.
Before I dive in, I want to acknowledge that I accept the premise that Russia has launched an unprovoked war of aggression against a democracy, and that this is a fundamental moral failure that should be resisted and punished. In other words, I view Ukraine’s defenders as noble and Russia’s government as criminal. I know that not everyone agrees with this assessment (one reader has already e-mailed me to suggest the whole thing is a hoax 🤷♂️), but for the purpose of this article I am operating under the assumption that Russia is the bad actor in this conflict and that the official government and bank sanctions are a reasonable response.
Why many tech companies tried to stay online
The core argument for staying open in Russia is that many tech platforms can be used for communication among anti-war Russian citizens. This is the reasoning that Facebook, Twitter and Google have offered, although they’ve since been shut down or pushed to restrict some of their services there. The thesis here is that more communication is good and can help with anti-war efforts, just as social media assisted Arab Spring protesters in coordinating in 2011. Since payments and ads have been largely restricted in Russia already, the companies are essentially just providing a communication service to the Russian people.
There’s also an argument (which I think is correct) that individual Russians shouldn’t be punished for their leaders’ mistakes – so while the Mastercard and Visa bans make it impossible for Russians to buy new software, they’re still able to play video games and generally access the (heavily censored) internet.
That said, the Ukrainian government is calling for much stricter tech sanctions – effectively asking tech companies to cut Russia off from the world. The moves by banks and credit card processors are a big step in this direction and the question is whether it is fair or helpful for other companies to follow suit.
The case for blocking access to your software from Russia
There are two counterarguments that might point us toward limiting or cutting off access to our tech from Russia. The first is that, just as anti-war protesters can use tech to spread their message (to some degree, at least), so can the Russian government use the same platforms to spread propaganda. For example, Russia appears to be telling its citizens that Ukraine is ruled by Nazis and that the people there want Russia to free them. Cutting them off from these platforms might handicap the Russian government’s online messaging operations.
The second counterargument is that, by “squeezing” Russian society in every possible way, informal tech sanctions can work alongside the formal bank and governmental sanctions to turn Russian popular opinion against the war and perhaps even against the Russian oligarchy in general. This is one goal of governmental sanctions (the other being to make it impossible for Russia to produce new war materiel), and the suggestion is that private companies should get on board too.
This may seem a little odd because we have spent the last 30 years (almost the entire history of the internet) in a world where it is safe to be globalized, decentralized, and effectively neutral on everything. That era may be coming to a close. The lines being drawn here – with Europe, North America, Australia, Japan, and many other countries lining up firmly against Russia – may force us all to think more about patriotism and taking sides.
I’m an American, and while acknowledging many blunders and unjust wars in our recent past, I will also unequivocally support an effort to protect a free and open democracy like Ukraine from being invaded and subjugated to authoritarian rule. I know there are many people in the tech industry who dream about a purely decentralized and borderless future, but I think Russia’s current position in global affairs makes that much less likely to become reality. We may end up in a position where our national allegiances affect how we do business, just as it was in the pre-internet 20th century.
What should WordPress developers do?
Like it or not, the WordPress community collectively holds the keys to a lot of the internet. Members of this community could plausibly block access to web hosting services, plugin updates, security scans, support sites, documentation, software-as-a-service tools, and a variety of other important pieces of content and infrastructure. If we did that, it would be a big deal.
For example, domain registrar and DNS provider Namecheap has cut off service to most Russian customers, specifically excluding protesters and “anti-regime” media. Atlassian, which owns Bitbucket, Trello and Jira, has suspended new sales to Russian customers and shut down accounts directly related to the government, while keeping accounts for Russian civilians active. Many WordPress-related companies could make similar changes to their services – or simply block an entire country from accessing their site via their firewall.
In my opinion, the most compelling reason not to do this is that the war seems to be unpopular in Russia as it is. If your theory is that further squeezing the Russian people will incite an actual revolution, maybe there is an argument for tech companies contributing to that. However, I think there is a point where cutting off internet services does an unfair amount of harm to Russians who are effectively innocent. If we were in a position where the Russian people seemed fully on board with invading their neighbors, I’d say tech blackouts make sense. But since our best guess right now is that there is already a lot of internal dissent, it probably makes more sense to support individual Russians with our tech than to cut them off, as Namecheap has done with their “protesters and anti-regime media” carve-out.
That said, the Visa and Mastercard decisions may force our hands, at least for services that require international payments. It seems like it will be effectively impossible for a Russian resident to renew their hosting plan or domain registration next month, for example. Even if Netflix hadn’t shut down, nobody could pay for it without a credit card. Still, there are a lot of free, open-source, or freemium services that we could restrict if we wanted to – and if the war drags on, we may feel more and more pressure to take action.