Netflix and TikTok suspended most of their services in Russia on Sunday as the government cracks down on what people and media outlets can say about Russia's war in Ukraine.
Pulling the plug on online entertainment - and information - is likely to further isolate the country and its people after a growing number of multinational businesses have cut off Russia 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.
U.S. credit card companies Visa, Mastercard and American Express all said over the weekend they would cut service in Russia. South Korea’s Samsung Electronics, a leading supplier of both smartphones and computer chips, said it would halt product shipments to the country, joining other big tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Intel and Dell.
And two of the so-called Big Four accounting firms said Sunday they were cutting ties to the country. KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers both they would end their relationships with their Russia-based member firms, each of which employs thousands of people.
Ukraine's minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, called on U.S. technology companies to do more Sunday to hit back against Russia. He tweeted open letters asking Apple and Google to shut down their app stores in Russia and for Amazon and Microsoft to suspend their cloud computing services.
Providers of internet-based services and apps have been mostly reluctant to take actions that could deprive Russian citizens of social media services and other sources of information.
That changed Friday when Russian President Vladimir Putin intensified a crackdown on media outlets and individuals who fail to hew to the Kremlin line on the war, blocking Facebook and Twitter and signing into law a bill that criminalizes the intentional spreading of what Moscow deems to be “fake” reports.
Netflix didn't specify a reason for suspending services Sunday except to say it reflected “circumstances on the ground." The company had previously said it would refuse to air Russian state TV channels.
TikTok said Russian users of its popular social media app would no longer be able to post new videos or livestreams and they also wouldn’t be able to see videos shared from elsewhere in the world.
“In light of Russia’s new ‘fake news’ law, we have no choice but to suspend livestreaming and new content to our video service while we review the safety implications of this law,” TikTok said in a statement on Twitter. “Our in-app messaging service will not be affected.”
TikTok spokesperson Hilary McQuaide said the TikTok app in Russia now appears in “view-only” mode and won't let people post or see new videos or livestreams. They can still see older videos, but not if they came from outside the country, she said.
“The safety of employees is our top priority,” she said, adding that the video-sharing service - part of China-based tech company ByteDance - didn't want to put either its Russian employees or users at risk of severe criminal penalties. Some protesters who've taken to the streets in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities to decry the invasion of Ukraine have used social media platforms to broadcast their cause.
The new “fake news” legislation, quickly rubber-stamped by both houses of the Kremlin-controlled parliament and signed by Putin, imposes prison sentences of up to 15 years for those spreading information that goes against the Russian government’s narrative on the war.
Multiple news outlets have also said they would pause their work inside Russia to evaluate the situation. Russian authorities have repeatedly and falsely decried reports of Russian military setbacks or civilian deaths in Ukraine as “fake” news. State media outlets refer to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “special military operation” rather than a war or an invasion.
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.”