Apple and Google removed an opposition voting app from their online stores Friday just as balloting began in Russia’s parliamentary election, bowing to pressure from President Vladimir Putin’s censorship office in a move digital rights activists blasted as Silicon Valley’s latest act of capitulation to an authoritarian government.
The app, built by associates of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was intended to help Russian voters opposed to Putin cast ballots in a way that would prevent splitting opposition support among multiple candidates and handing victory to the Putin candidate. But Roskomnadzor, the Russian censorship agency, accused Apple and Google of meddling in Russia’s political affairs by allowing voters to download the app and demanded that it be removed from their online stores. It threatened fines and possible criminal prosecutions while calling Navalny supporters “extremists.”
For weeks, the companies had resisted as Navalny’s forces publicly and privately called on them to uphold global democratic standards. But on Friday, that resistance vanished and the app disappeared from Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play store in Russia, the main sources of apps for iPhone and Android mobile devices.
For users who had already downloaded the app, new updates also appeared to have been blocked, and Navalny’s forces scrambled to get out candidate lists on alternative platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and Telegram.
Natalia Krapiva, a digital rights attorney with the Internet freedom group Access Now, said it was clear Apple and Google “took this decision under pressure. But the companies owe the Russian people an explanation.”
In a tweet directed to Apple she said, “I can’t believe I need to say this but even in Russia, voting is not criminal behavior.”
Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, who recently fled the country, called the actions by Apple and Google “an outstanding act of censorship.”
“It is a pity that at the time of the confrontation between honest people and a corrupt regime, these companies played into the hands of the latter,” she said on Twitter.
The removal of the Navalny app culminated an unusually public showdown between Putin’s regime and the American technology giants, which, despite being among the world’s richest companies, often struggle to navigate local laws in countries where they operate.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov praised the decision to remove the app.
“They have met the lawful demands,” Peskov told journalists in Moscow. “This application is prohibited in the territory of our country. Both platforms received relevant notices, and it seems they have made the decision consistent with the letter and the spirit of the law.”
Neither company replied to requests for comment from The Washington Post.
A person with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering the Russian government said Google received direct threats against staff located in the country from Russian authorities.
The Associated Press reported that representatives of both companies were invited to a meeting in the upper house of Russia’s parliament on Thursday, after which legislative leaders said in a statement that Apple would cooperate with Russian authorities.
On Friday, Apple also disabled its Private Relay feature in Russia. The feature conceals the user’s IP address and browsing data, offering protection against government surveillance online. It is not available in some other countries, including China, Belarus, Colombia and Saudi Arabia, but had been accessible in Russia until Friday.
Friday’s voting began three days of balloting for Russia’s State Duma or lower house of parliament. Government authorities have pitched spreading the voting over three days as a pandemic measure, but an independent observer group, Golos, has criticized the prolonged election because it would leave ballot boxes vulnerable to interference over two nights.
Navalny’s team has recommended that voters cast their ballots Sunday to reduce the chances of them being stolen overnight.
The Navalny app’s “Smart Voting” tool, supported by a website called Smart Voting, released its voting recommendations Wednesday.
A Russian court declared Navalny’s political network “extremists” in June. Ivan Zhdanov, a key Navalny ally, tweeted a screenshot of an email from Apple that used that same characterization to justify the app’s removal as containing “content that is illegal in Russia.”
The decision to remove the app also renewed complaints internationally that tech companies often comply with the demands of authoritarian regimes worldwide as they try to avoid punitive actions or be forced to pull out from a country altogether.
“Google, Apple and other Big Tech companies are no longer simply tech startups disrupting the Internet, they’re now infrastructure companies that impact people everywhere,” said Tanya Lokot, an Internet freedom researcher and professor at Dublin City University in Ireland. “They haven’t really caught up to this. They still don’t want to accept how much responsibility they bear for what happens to millions, if not billions, of people around the world.”
In October 2019, Apple made a flurry of changes to its software in Hong Kong that brought the company in line with the Chinese government, which was cracking down on pro-democracy protesters in the semiautonomous financial hub. First, it removed the flag of Taiwan, which China does not recognize, from the emoji offered in its keyboard. It also banned media outlet Quartz, which had covered in detail the protests there. Then, it removed an app called HKmap.live, which Hong Kong protesters had used to evade police officers.
Apple spokesman Fred Sainz defended the moves at the time, saying that the company had been contacted by “many concerned customers in Hong Kong” about the app. Apple had heard from the Hong Kong police that the app had been used to “target and ambush police,” Sainz said then.
In 2017, Apple removed virtual private networks, or VPNs from its App Store in China. Those apps had been used by Chinese citizens to mask their location and circumvent websites that are censored by the Chinese government. And in 2018, Apple cut a deal with a Chinese datacenter partner to store iCloud data inside China, where critics said it could be accessed and decrypted by the Chinese government.
In another well-known confrontation with a major American tech company, Google pulled out of China in 2010 after the government there began censoring content on its search engine and YouTube. This campaign culminated with a major hack, allegedly originating in China, that sought access to the Gmail accounts of human rights activists.
Google’s departure from China was cast at the time as a moral stand. But the company came under fierce scrutiny years later when it was revealed it was working with the Chinese government on a new search engine, dubbed “Project Dragonfly,” with built-in censorship tools. Google ultimately mothballed the project.
Now, Google even censors its map borders in some areas, adhering to legislation mandating where the borders should be.
Navalny was poisoned on Aug. 20, 2020. After recovering in Germany, Navalny returned to Russia this year and was imprisoned, after which authorities launched an unprecedented crackdown on the political movement he has led since the late 2000s.
Now, Navalny faces at least two years in prison. Meanwhile, opposition figures, human rights activists and human rights lawyers have gone into exile to avoid conviction and imprisonment or prolonged periods of house arrest.
Apple and Google were not the only tech giant whose actions raised concern among opposition activists. Earlier this week, Amazon Web Services threatened to suspend an account associated with Navalny’s Smart Voting project that was using its cloud-computing services. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The threat was made to a digital rights activist group that rotates domain designations every minute to evade cyberattacks the group has accused the Russian government of launching to block access.
By Friday, after questions from The Post, Amazon restored full access to the group. The suspension threat, though, was not the result of a Russian government request, Amazon spokesman Casey McGee said. Instead, Amazon’s fraud prevention mechanisms identified suspect behavior, such as being unable to verify the credit card on the account.
Though Amazon restored full access to the account after the Navalny group provided the information the company requested, McGee declined to say whether it would increase the number of domain names issued to the group, something the group had requested.
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Dixon reported from Moscow, De Vynck and Albergotti, from San Francisco. The Washington Post’s Jay Greene in Seattle, Taylor Telford and Cat Zakrzewski in Washington contributed to this report.