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The Absent Activists

This article was previously published by Coda Story.

By Alan Deutschman

In March 2015, when the Re­pub­li­can gov­er­nor of the state of In­di­ana, Mike Pence, signed a so-called “re­li­gious free­dom” law that would per­mit busi­nesses to refuse to serve gay cus­tomers, his ac­tion pro­voked a fierce re­sponse from cor­po­rate lead­ers clus­tered halfway across the con­ti­nent on the West Coast. The San Fran­cisco bil­lion­aire Marc Be­nioff, whose Sales­ had paid $2.5 bil­lion only two years ear­lier to buy a soft­ware com­pany with 2,000 em­ploy­ees in In­di­anapo­lis, took to Twit­ter for his salvo: “To­day we are can­cel­ing all pro­grams that re­quire our cus­tomers/ em­ploy­ees to travel to In­di­ana to face dis­crim­i­na­tion,” he de­clared.

Soon Be­nioff joined to­gether with 70 other top ex­ec­u­tives of tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies—in­clud­ing Airbn­b’s Brian Chesky, Net­flix’s Reed Hast­ings, Mi­crosoft’s Satya Nadella, and Cis­co’s Gary Moore—to sign a state­ment op­pos­ing the le­gal­iza­tion of LGBT dis­crim­i­na­tion. And Ap­ple’s openly-gay CEO, Tim Cook, pub­lished an opin­ion col­umn in the Wash­ing­ton Post to let peo­ple know “around the world” that “re­gard­less of what the law might al­low in In­di­ana … we will never tol­er­ate dis­crim­i­na­tion.” Cook con­cluded: “Op­pos­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion takes courage. With the lives and dig­nity of so many peo­ple at stake, it’s time for all of us to be coura­geous.” Days later, Sales­’s top ex­ec­u­tive in In­di­ana stood by the side of the leg­is­la­ture’s re­cal­ci­trant Re­pub­li­can lead­ers as they an­nounced a new law clar­i­fy­ing that the state’s “re­li­gious free­dom” act did­n’t con­done dis­crim­i­na­tion based on gender.

The quick, de­ci­sive vic­tory in In­di­ana res­onated world­wide, and the news in­spired the hopes of Russ­ian ac­tivists that Amer­i­ca’s pro­gres­sive techno-moguls would fi­nally speak up against Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay laws. But the Sil­i­con Val­ley lead­ers still haven’t sum­moned nearly enough courage for that much tougher fight.

An Amer­i­can sales ex­ec­u­tive trav­el­ing to­day to Moscow—where the state sanc­tions per­se­cu­tion and con­dones vi­o­lence against LGBTQ peo­ple—could nonethe­less pa­tron­ize many of the same brands that serve him in San Fran­cisco or Seat­tle or New York City, in­clud­ing the com­pa­nies that force­fully op­posed the In­di­ana law: He could stay at an Airbnb apart­ment rental in Moscow, which has emerged as one of the ser­vice’s top mar­kets world­wide. (Airbnb has a Moscow of­fice with sev­eral em­ploy­ees and owns a small Russ­ian de­sign firm.) The trav­eler could get chauf­feured around town by Uber dri­vers, drink lattes from Star­bucks, stream video on Net­flix, and buy an iPhone or iPad or Mac­Book at a re­tail shop or or­der one di­rectly from Ap­ple’s Russ­ian-lan­guage on­line store. (Ap­ple has sold more than 1 mil­lion iPhones a year in Rus­sia.) He could search for sales leads and con­tacts and gauge cus­tomers’ at­ti­tudes in Rus­sia us­ing Sales­’s “so­cial lis­ten­ing soft­ware.” If he was con­duct­ing busi­ness with the Russ­ian gov­ern­ment, he would surely en­counter bu­reau­crats us­ing PCs that ran on Mi­crosoft Win­dows op­er­at­ing sys­tem and were net­worked by routers made by Cisco, which is un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the U.S. Jus­tice De­part­ment and Se­cu­ri­ties and Ex­change Com­mis­sion for al­legedly mas­ter­mind­ing a mas­sive scheme of kick­backs and bribes to se­cure con­tracts with Rus­si­a’s gov­ern­ment, mil­i­tary, and in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions.

Amer­i­ca’s pro­gres­sive com­pa­nies have re­mained con­spic­u­ously silent about Putin’s anti-gay laws while they’ve con­tin­ued to pur­sue Rus­si­a’s mar­ket­place. As in­flu­en­tial as the Sil­i­con Val­ley ti­tans might seem in their home coun­try, where lo­cal of­fi­cials crave the in­vest­ment and em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties they can bring, they’re fac­ing a pre­car­i­ous sit­u­a­tion in Rus­sia, where Putin has be­come in­creas­ingly an­tag­o­nis­tic to­wards them over the past sev­eral years. His regime has cracked down on In­ter­net com­pa­nies in its ef­forts to sup­press free speech and po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion. Last year it be­gan re­quir­ing that for­eign com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing in Rus­sia keep their data on servers on Rus­sian soil, where the gov­ern­ment can ac­cess it. In re­sponse Google shut­tered its re­search and de­vel­op­ment op­er­a­tion in Moscow, mov­ing an es­ti­mated 50 to 100 en­gi­neers over­seas. Mi­crosoft re­lo­cated its Skype de­vel­op­ment team from Moscow to Prague, and Adobe pulled all its em­ploy­ees.

Google, which ri­vals Rus­si­a’s home­grown Yan­dex in the In­ter­net search busi­ness there, ap­pears to have flaunted Rus­si­a’s data server law or at least de­layed tak­ing ac­tion so far. (Google as well as Face­book and Twit­ter were granted vague ex­ten­sions). But Uber and eBay are re­port­edly fol­low­ing the new reg­u­la­tions, and the Russ­ian busi­ness daily Kom­m­er­sant has re­ported that even Ap­ple is com­ply­ing, too. If this is true—Ap­ple has­n’t com­mented pub­licly on the mat­ter—then Putin’s regime could gain ac­cess to Rus­sians’ per­sonal troves of pho­tographs and videos and text mes­sages and find what they’ve been read­ing and lis­ten­ing to and watch­ing. Such a ca­pit­u­la­tion would rep­re­sent a per­ilous strike against the pri­vacy of all of Ap­ple’s Russ­ian cus­tomers, and it would be es­pe­cially dan­ger­ous for LGBTQ peo­ple there.

Only a few years ago Rus­sia was court­ing Amer­i­ca’s top tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies rather than fight­ing them. In 2010 Pres­i­dent Dmitry Medvedev vis­ited the cor­po­rate head­quar­ters of Ap­ple and Google in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. On his mis­sion he talked up his plans for Rus­si­a’s am­bi­tious ef­fort to cre­ate its own ver­sion of Sil­i­con Val­ley: the Skolkovo tech­nol­ogy park de­vel­op­ment on the out­skirts of Moscow. Medvedev suc­ceeded in en­tic­ing lead­ing Amer­i­can ven­ture cap­i­tal firms to com­mit to in­vest in this nascent tech­nol­ogy “hub,” which was planned for 100,000 work­ers.

But the Sil­i­con Val­ley-Moscow al­liance be­gan splin­ter­ing in early 2014, when the Hu­man Rights Cam­paign, a promi­nent Amer­i­can gay-rights ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion, called on the of­fi­cial spon­sors of the Win­ter Olympics in Sochi to protest Putin’s anti-gay laws. Spon­sors such as Mc­Don­ald’s and Coca-Cola re­frained from ex­plic­itly ad­dress­ing the is­sue, but the ac­tivists’ ag­i­ta­tion helped to elicit ges­tures of sup­port from a cou­ple of ma­jor tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies: AT&T, a long­time spon­sor of the U.S. Olympic Com­mit­tee (though not of the Sochi win­ter games), is­sued a state­ment on its blog, and Google re­cast its home­page logo with il­lus­tra­tions of Olympic ath­letes su­per­im­posed on the col­ors of the rain­bow flag.

But the real fis­sure came soon af­ter the Olympics, when Russ­ian forces an­nexed Crimea and Amer­i­ca’s tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies com­plied with the U.S. gov­ern­men­t’s sanc­tions against the in­vader. Rus­si­a’s cur­rent “In­ter­net czar,” Ger­man Kli­menko, who is push­ing for a steep hike in taxes on Amer­i­can tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, re­cently told Bloomberg Busi­ness­Week that this com­pli­ance marked a “point of no re­turn” for Rus­si­a’s re­la­tion­ship with Sil­i­con Val­ley firms.

In April 2014, Putin ap­peared on Russ­ian tele­vi­sion and claimed that the In­ter­net had be­gun as a “CIA pro­ject” and re­mained a tool for the Amer­i­can in­tel­li­gence agency. Months later, in Oc­to­ber, when Ap­ple’s Tim Cook came out as the first openly-gay chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of a For­tune 500 com­pany, the news pro­voked a back­lash from the Russ­ian es­tab­lish­ment. Vi­taly Milonov, a mem­ber of par­lia­ment who helped in­sti­gate the na­tion’s anti-gay laws, called on Rus­sia to bar Tim Cook from ever en­ter­ing the coun­try: “What could he bring us? The Ebola virus, AIDS, gon­or­rhea? They all have un­seemly ties over there. Ban him for life.” And a mon­u­ment to the late Steve Jobs, which en­shrined the en­tre­pre­neur’s im­age on 6-foot-high replica of an iPhone, was dis­man­tled and re­moved from a col­lege in St. Pe­ters­burg, where it had been erected by a con­sor­tium of Russ­ian com­pa­nies.

Ap­ple and Cook him­self never com­mented pub­licly about this ha­rass­ment, and soon af­ter the com­pany pushed ahead and aired its first-ever com­mer­cials on Russ­ian tele­vi­sion. Since then Ap­ple has­n’t re­sponded to any of the on­go­ing Russ­ian at­tacks against its gay-friend­li­ness.

The com­pany ig­nored Russ­ian gov­ern­ment mem­ber Alexan­der Star­avoitov’s ac­cu­sa­tion that it was spread­ing “gay pro­pa­ganda” by of­fer­ing U2’s al­bum “Songs of In­no­cence” as a free down­load for cus­tomers who up­graded their op­er­at­ing sys­tems. And Ap­ple re­mained silent when the Russ­ian me­dia re­ported last Sep­tem­ber that the Russ­ian po­lice were in­ves­ti­gat­ing it for pro­mul­gat­ing “gay” emojis de­pict­ing same-sex peo­ple hold­ing hands and kiss­ing.

Putin’s an­tag­o­nism to Sil­i­con Val­ley has been costly to Rus­si­a’s eco­nomic as­pi­ra­tions. Amer­i­can ven­ture cap­i­tal in­vestors have been pulling their fund­ing, and tech star­tups have been flee­ing the coun­try. And the Skolkovo tech hub out­side Moscow has peaked at only around 25,000 work­ers, a frac­tion of Medvede­v’s grand as­pi­ra­tions.

Be­cause of Putin’s hos­til­ity to for­eign tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, he may be los­ing one of the most promis­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to di­ver­sify Russ­ian in­dus­try be­yond its heavy re­liance on nat­ural re­sources. The econ­omy has suf­fered greatly from the sharp de­clines in oil prices, but Putin’s regime has­n’t re­lented.

Sil­i­con Val­ley com­pa­nies are less likely to take the risk of ag­i­tat­ing for gay rights in Rus­sia when they no longer have em­ploy­ees on the ground there. Sales­ pro­vided a state­ment to Coda Story that par­tially ex­plains the seem­ing in­con­sis­tency be­tween its ac­tivism at home and its ab­sence on LGBT rights in Rus­sia. “Last year we took a pub­lic stance in In­di­ana be­cause our em­ploy­ees there brought the is­sue to our lead­er­ship,” said the state­ment. But while the com­pany sells soft­ware for tap­ping the Russ­ian mar­ket, it does­n’t ac­tu­ally main­tain an of­fice with em­ploy­ees in Rus­sia who could de­mand ac­tion from head­quar­ters in San Fran­cisco. (Ap­ple, Airbnb, and Star­bucks, which do have em­ploy­ees in Rus­sia, did­n’t re­spond to re­quests for in­ter­views.)

Even though the Silicon Valley companies have been closing local offices and bringing home their engineers from Russia, they’re still competing relentlessly for market share in an emerging economy that already has 84 million Internet users. Unless they’re willing to risk losing access to Russia’s large and promising marketplace, the Silicon Valley moguls will ultimately have to play by Putin’s rules. And that means it’s unlikely that their crusade for gay rights will extend to Moscow or St. Petersburg. If anything, their acquiescence to Russia’s insistence on storing all data within Russia will do even more to imperil the persecuted LGBTQ population.



Alan Deutschman is a professor and the Donald W. Reynolds Chair of Business Journalism at the University of Nevada. 

[Photo courtesy of William Murphy]

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