MOSCOW – Apple and Google have removed an app to coordinate the protest vote in this weekend’s Russian elections in the country on Friday, a blow to opponents of President Vladimir V. Putin and a demonstration of the limits of Silicon Valley when it comes to resisting the crackdown on dissent around the world.
The decisions came after Russian authorities, who claim the app is illegal, threatened to sue local Apple and Google employees – a sharp escalation in the Kremlin’s campaign to curb the largely unsuccessful internet censored nationwide. A person familiar with Google’s decision said authorities had named specific people who would face prosecution, prompting them to remove the app.
The person declined to be identified for fear of angering the Russian government. Google has over 100 employees nationwide.
Apple did not respond to phone calls, emails, or text messages asking for comment.
The app was created and promoted by allies of opposition leader Alexei A. Navalny, who hoped to use it to consolidate the protest vote in each of Russia’s 225 constituencies. He disappeared from both tech platforms by the time voting began in the three-day parliamentary elections, in which Mr Putin’s United Russia party – in a carefully managed staged system – holds a huge advantage.
Mr Navalny’s team reacted indignantly to the decision, suggesting that the companies had made a damaging concession to the Russians. “Removing the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship,” Navalny collaborator Ivan Zhdanov, said on twitter. “Russia’s authoritarian government and propaganda will be delighted. “
The decisions have also drawn criticism from free speech activists in the West. “Businesses are in a really difficult position, but they’ve got into it”, David Kaye, a former United Nations official charged with investigating freedom of expression issues, said in an interview. “They are de facto leading an element of Russian repression. Whether this is justifiable or not, it is complicity and companies must explain it.
The extraordinary pressure on Google and Apple is an indication of the threat the Kremlin sees Mr. Navalny’s “smart voting” effort and the growing role that technology is playing as an instrument of political power. United Russia’s approval ratings in state polls have fallen to around 30% from 40% before the last parliamentary elections in 2016. A consolidation of the opposition vote could defeat United Russia candidates in the elections. competitive constituencies, since only a simple majority is needed to win.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov claimed the app was illegal in Russia when asked about it on Friday during his regular call with reporters; Mr Navalny’s movement was banned as an extremist this summer. “Both platforms have been notified and according to the law they have taken these decisions, it seems,” he said.
Maintaining open and uncensored access to their services, especially in authoritarian countries, is becoming one of the toughest challenges for US tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter. In countries like India, Myanmar or Turkey, authorities are increasingly pressuring companies to censor certain political speeches, or order Internet shutdowns to block access to the web.
Civil society groups have warned that forcing companies to comply with a patchwork of laws and regulations risks creating a more fractured internet, where access to information and products will depend on where they are the people. Businesses need to weigh the value of the availability of their services in a country like Russia, where they are seen as more independent than local technology platforms, against the costs of a full start, as Google has done. in China.
The pressure exerted on Silicon Valley to block certain content on their platforms does not come only from more authoritarian governments. Policymakers in the United States and Europe want businesses to do more to tackle hate speech, disinformation and other toxic content. Republicans in the United States claim they are censored online.
In Russia, the national Internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, has repeatedly asked companies to remove certain content, on pain of fines or restrictions on access to their products. The government claims that American internet companies are interfering in Russia’s internal affairs by allowing anti-Kremlin activists to freely use their platforms.
The Russian government has been increasingly blunt in recent days about its willingness to use threats of arrest to prevent use of the app. “With the participation of Apple and Google, specific crimes are committed, the scale of which can only increase in the coming days”, declared Thursday Vladimir Dzhabarov, member of the upper house of the Russian Parliament. “Those who contribute to the evasion of liability of their parent companies in the territory of the Russian Federation will be punished. “
It remains to be seen whether Friday’s concession by Apple and Google will turn into a watershed moment as America’s tech giants stand ready to withstand pressure from the Kremlin. Amid Russia’s crackdown on dissent this year, Silicon Valley’s most popular platforms have remained freely accessible, allowing journalists and activists to continue to get their message out. On YouTube, for example, Team Navalny’s investigations into the corruption of the Russian elite regularly garner millions of views.
But Friday’s move could encourage the Kremlin as well as governments elsewhere to use the threat of suing employees to leverage companies. It presents a test of Silicon Valley ideals around free speech and an open Internet, balanced not only against profit but against the safety of their workers.
Deletions of Facebook and Twitter posts, YouTube videos, and other internet content happen quite regularly as businesses seek to comply with local laws around the world. In China, Apple has removed apps that counter government censors, including software that would allow Chinese users to access the open global Internet. A 2016 court ruling in Russia led Apple and Google to remove LinkedIn from their app stores after LinkedIn failed to comply with a law requiring data on Russian users to be stored within the country’s borders. country.
But Friday’s deletions by Google and Apple have little precedent given election issues and Mr Navalny’s high-profile campaign against the Kremlin, said Natalia Krapiva, legal adviser to Access Now, a civil society group. tracking down internet censorship. “It’s really a new phenomenon to attack app stores,” Ms. Krapiva said.
While companies would prefer to be seen as impartial platforms, Ms. Krapiva said industry leaders should speak out more forcefully to defend free speech and an open internet, especially if employees across the Internet company were threatened with criminal prosecution.
Otherwise, “it looks like they’re on the side of the government,” Ms. Krapiva said.
Governments have used the prospect of prosecution in the past, although incidents rarely become public. In 2016, a Facebook executive was arrested in Brazil after the company refused to release WhatsApp data related to a drug trafficking investigation. Indian and Thai authorities are among those who have also threatened jail time to pressure social media companies.
Russian authorities have been pressuring Apple and Google for weeks to remove Team Navalny’s voting app. With Mr Navalny’s websites blocked in Russia, the app has become a loophole allowing the jailed politician’s exiled allies to continue to reach a large audience. Almost all smartphones run Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating system, which makes their app stores the key artery for making any product to the public.
The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned US Ambassador to Moscow John J. Sullivan last week and announced that “America’s” digital giants “” had broken Russian law “in connection with the preparation and the conduct of elections ”.
Bailiffs visited Google offices earlier this week to enforce court-ordered measures against the protest voting campaign, state media reported.
The Navalny app continued to work on Apple and Android phones for those who had previously downloaded the software.
The app is at the heart of the protest strategy that the Leader of the Opposition calls “smart voting”. The goal is to defeat as many candidates representing the ruling United Russia party as possible by having all opposition voters in each constituency choose the same challenger, whether or not they agree with their point of view. seen.
The “Navalny” application coordinates the process, asks for a user’s address and responds with the name of the candidate for whom they must vote.
The Navalny team on Friday sought to obtain the names of their “smart voting” picks through other methods, such as automated responses in the Telegram messaging app. But they expressed their anger at Apple and Google for what they saw as bending to pressure from the Kremlin.
“That shameful day will go down in history for a long time,” Leonid Volkov, Mr Navalny’s longtime chief of staff, wrote on his Telegram account.
Anton Troianovsky brought back from Moscow, and Adam satariano from London. Oleg Matsnev and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed to reporting from Moscow.