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Ukraine has helped the tech industry, but Big Tech hasn't helped Ukraine

WhatsApp
WhatsApp (Image credit: Android Central)

Android Central's discussion of politics mostly centers on legislation targeting major tech companies hosted in a few countries like the U.S., China, and Korea. It isn't the proper forum to discuss the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, as we can't do the topic justice. But a recent tweet thread from Forbes Ukraine tech editor Mike Sapiton opened my eyes to how much of an impact the Ukrainian people have had on the tech world.

Without any malice or conscious bias, I never gave much thought to Ukraine as a "tech country" or realized that many of the apps, games, and tech we use daily stem from Ukrainian innovation and ingenuity. And with that realization, I wanted to use this week's Editor's Desk to highlight and honor the brands and people who have impacted our lives and happiness without our — or at least my — realizing it.

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Sapiton's thread highlights two major apps everyone knows: WhatsApp and PayPal, founded by two Ukrainian-American emigrants, Jan Koum and Max Levchin. The Odessa-based Readdle mostly makes Apple apps but did make popular Android email app Spark. And if you use Grammarly to clean up your work, you're not alone; the AC editors use the AI-based editor to catch (most of) our typos.

He also notes how Ukrainians have worked behind the scenes on the technology behind Amazon's popular Ring cameras that protect your home, as well as some Snapchat filters.

But Sapiton only scratched the surface. I didn't know, for instance, that Ukrainian developer Dmitriy Zaporozhets co-founded GitLab, an open-source repository developer tool I used in my old job as an e-book dev. And many major tech companies have Kyiv offices, including Google, Microsoft, IBM, Meta, Amazon, and many others.

Stalker 2 Heart Of Chernobyl Ukraine

Source: GSC Game World (Image credit: Source: GSC Game World)

Console and mobile gamers also owe many hours of entertainment to Ukrainian-based companies. Kyiv-based GSC Game World is currently developing S.T.A.L.K.E.R 2: Heart of Chernobyl, and recently took to Twitter to ask fans of its games to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Russia's recent occupation of Chernobyl isn't something the developers could ever have anticipated.

Windows Central highlighted a long list of other studios either based in Ukraine or with offices there, including Ubisoft, 4A Games (Metro: Exodus), Frogwares (Sherlock Holmes), Wargaming (World of Tanks), and Plarium (Raid: Shadow Legends). In terms of Android, AB Games makes some of the most popular hidden object games like Hidden City, which currently has over a million reviews on the Play Store.

Tech is political, whether we like it or not

Google Maps satellite feed showing Russian Troop movements

Source: Capella Space/Middlebury Institute of International Studies (Image credit: Source: Capella Space/Middlebury Institute of International Studies)

Even if they're not based in Ukraine, the most well-known tech companies' decisions will impact the nation in significant ways, for better or worse and sometimes by accident.

Google outlined its Ukraine strategy to combat misinformation, block cyberattacks, and provide free ads requesting aid for Ukraine. It also recently promised to demonetize and stop recommending Russian state-run channels on YouTube; Reuters reports state-run videos from RT and others generated tens of millions of dollars in ad revenue in the past, and that Russia frequently bought ads for its videos to reach a wider audience. And Business Insider reports that people used Google Maps' real-time tracking to follow Russian troops' movements, hours before Putin announced the attack.

Meta, which has rightfully faced criticism for its moderation efforts in the past, refused to stop independently fact-checking Facebook posts in Russia, leading to the country restricting Facebook within its borders. But like Google, Meta only just blocked Russia (opens in new tab) from freely running its ads or monetizing its content on Facebook.

Twitter Support announced that "We're aware that Twitter is being restricted for some people in Russia." The same likely applies to most social media and news aggregate sites, as Russia aims to block its citizens from seeing pro-Ukrainian content.

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MWC 2022 banned Russian companies in response to the invasion, while most major cellular companies offered free long-distance calls to Ukraine to contact loved ones.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian politicians have asked tech companies like Apple to join in on Russian sanctions by blocking their services in Russia. Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted that he had asked Tim Cook to block the App Store there, which isn't likely to happen. iMore has reported on Apple's humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, however.

In most instances, the Big Tech companies have started to "help" Ukraine by either giving away free services or reversing policies that enabled Russia's policies and misinformation for years. When Putin claims that he is invading Ukraine to "denazify" it, he could use Google and Facebook to push that message up until a couple of days ago.

It's unlikely Google, Apple, or any other company will completely burn its bridges with Russia unless forced by political forces in the United States or European Union to do so — as it would dry up a source of revenue. Up until now, they have accepted operating within the confines of different countries' political restrictions — most notoriously evidenced by Apple's secret $275 billion deal with China.

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought an unflattering spotlight onto tech companies' laissez-faire approach to enabling "controversial" regimes. Autocrats demand companies give them the tools to push their propaganda and block the free flow of information as the cost of admission. And by and large, companies comply, only cutting back on the enabling and profiteering now that the public eye is on them.

Focusing on people, not businesses

In times like this, I find it hard to give a crap about the business and politics driving tech companies' actions, as they scramble to look principled in some territories and compliant in others to avoid threatening their assets. It's too little, too late for the Ukranian people to change their policies now.

Instead, I can't help but watch the news coming from Ukraine and think of all those tech gurus that spent their days developing apps and services I use every day. Some even worked in the satellite offices of companies that profited millions from Russian ads. Now, those same techies are taking up machine guns or hunkering down in shelters.

It kills me that there's nothing I can do for those men and women except to give my overdue gratitude for making my life a little better. And hope against hope that their lives can go back to normal soon.

Michael spent years freelancing on every tech topic under the sun before settling down on the real exciting stuff: virtual reality, fitness wearables, gaming, and how tech intersects with our world. He's a semi-reformed Apple-to-Android user who loves running, D&D, and Star Wars. Find him on Twitter at @Michael_L_Hicks.