In March 2022, Mailchimp, a newsletter service provider owned by Intuit, left Russia to signal its support for the people of Ukraine. But it went too far, cutting off the accounts of prominent civil society organizations that defend human rights in Russia. It did so without letting them retrieve their subscriber data. Today, Mailchimp and other tech companies have failed to restore service for human rights defenders, helping Russia’s repressive regime silence civil society.
What’s happened so far
Following Russia’s illegal full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many tech companies left Russia and Belarus. Governments around the world implemented wide-ranging sanctions. Access Now and a coalition of civil society organizations strongly condemned the invasion, while also convincing the United States and other governments, as well as a number of tech companies, to create the exemptions necessary to enable pro-democracy and anti-war activists in Russia to stay connected and do their vital and important work.
The U.S. now explicitly exempts the types of services Mailchimp provides from its sanctions on Russia. Mailchimp is based in the U.S. Yet despite Mailchimp’s public promise to reinstate the accounts of “independent news organizations, civil rights, and similar groups,” it has not only failed to do so, but is also actively ignoring our inquiries on the issue.
On June 21, Access Now and Teplitsa, Technologies for Social Good sent a letter asking Mailchimp to live up to its pledge. Two months later, Mailchimp is still silent, while the organizations they cut off are struggling to survive.
Who Mailchimp is blocking
Mailchimp is blocking leading NGOs and independent media groups vital for defending human rights in Russia and opposing the war in Ukraine. These include prominent Russian media organizations like Crew against Torture (formerly Committee against Torture), which has investigated torture and extrajudicial killings in Russian prisons for the past 22 years. Their lawyers risk their lives daily to defend victims of Russian government abuse, so the government labeled the organization a “foreign agent.” Mailchimp is also blocking GOLOS, Holod, and OVD-Info, as well as charity organizations that help homeless individuals and individuals with HIV.
These are many of the same organizations the Russian government itself has persecuted and blocked in Russia. Mailchimp’s failure to act not only disconnects these organizations from the people they serve, it stops them from undertaking the email fundraising campaigns they need to keep their operations going.
It’s not just Mailchimp
Mailchimp is not the only company helping Putin’s regime repress activists and journalists. Slack, Sectigo, and many other companies provide essential communications and website security tools. But when they left Russia, they all blocked Russian accounts indiscriminately.
Fortunately, some companies have reversed their decisions. After we called out Namecheap, an SSL certificate provider, for silencing Putin regime critics, they changed course, announcing they would still provide services for civil society actors in Russia and Belarus opposing the war in Ukraine.
U.N. experts to tech companies: protect the people you left behind
This issue matters for human rights. On July 13, 2022, a group of U.N. human rights experts expressed urgent concerns over technology companies withdrawing from the Russian market, including Mary Lawlor, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression. They warned companies not to take action in response to the war “without necessarily taking into account the negative impacts on human rights of people left behind.” They also argue against “leaving human rights defenders and civil society organizations with little access to the information and communication infrastructure vital for their work,” and urge businesses to “be mindful of human rights throughout their operations and try to help Russian human rights defenders and civil society organizations avoid complete isolation.”
Action required — now
As it stands, Mailchimp and other tech companies are ignoring the U.S. government, U.N. human rights experts, and digital rights groups with expertise in this area. This only helps Putin’s campaign to censor and repress Russian civil society organizations and independent media reporting on the war in Ukraine. We urge them to uphold their business and human rights obligations and protect Russia’s civil society human rights defenders. We won’t back off until they follow through.