Apple and Google fire contested Russia app

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MOSCOW – Apple and Google on Friday removed an app meant to coordinate the country’s protest vote in this weekend’s Russian elections, a blow to opponents of President Vladimir Putin and a demonstration of the limits of Silicon Valley when it is about resisting the repression of 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 internet largely uncensored country. 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 Navalny, who hoped to use it to shore up 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 election in which Putin’s United Russia Party – in a carefully managed staged system – holds a huge advantage.

Navalny’s team reacted angrily 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. “The companies are in a really difficult position, but they have put themselves there,” said David Kaye, a former United Nations official charged with investigating freedom of expression issues. “They are de facto carrying out 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 in 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 Peskov claimed the app was illegal in Russia when asked about it on Friday during his regular call with reporters; Navalny’s movement was banned as an extremist this summer. “The two platforms have been notified, and according to the law, they have taken these decisions, it seems,” he said.

INTERNET CENSORSHIP

The pressure on Silicon Valley companies to block certain content on their platforms is not just coming 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. American Republicans 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,” said Thursday Vladimir Dzhabarov, member of the upper house of the Russian parliament. “People who contribute to the evasion of liability of their parent companies in the territory of the Russian Federation will be punished.”

During Russia’s crackdown on dissent this year, Silicon Valley’s most popular platforms remained freely accessible, allowing journalists and activists to continue to get their messages out. On YouTube, for example, Team Navalny’s investigations into the corruption of the Russian elite regularly get millions of views.

But Friday’s move could embolden the Kremlin as well as governments around the world 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 also 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 about Russian users to be stored within the country’s borders. country.

But Google and Apple’s deletions on Friday have little precedent given election issues and Navalny’s high-profile campaign against the Kremlin, said Natalia Krapiva, legal adviser to Access Now, a civil society group tracking censorship. Internet. “It’s really a new phenomenon to take on app stores,” Krapiva said.

While companies would prefer to be seen as impartial platforms, Krapiva said industry leaders should speak out more forcefully to defend free speech and an open internet, especially if employees in the company were threatened with criminal prosecution.

‘A BIG MISTAKE’

Russian authorities have been pressuring Apple and Google for weeks to remove Team Navalny’s voting app. With Navalny’s websites blocked in Russia, the app became a loophole allowing the jailed politician’s exiled allies to continue to reach large audiences. 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 Sullivan last week and announced that “” American “digital giants” had broken Russian law “in connection with the preparation and of the conduct of the elections “.

Representatives from Apple and Google were invited to a meeting at the upper house of Russia’s parliament, the Federation Council, on Thursday. The council’s commission on the protection of state sovereignty later said in a statement that Apple agreed to cooperate with Russian authorities.

Apple and Google did not respond to an Associated Press request for comment on Friday.

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.

Navalny is serving a 2.5-year sentence for parole violation following a previous conviction he says was politically motivated.

Its main allies have been accused of criminal charges and many have left the country. The Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, along with a network of regional offices, have been banned as extremist organizations in a decision that exposes hundreds of people associated with them to prosecution.

About 50 websites managed by his team have been blocked and dozens of regional offices have been closed. The authorities have also decided to block the Smart Voting website, but some users can still access it. The Navalny team also created a Smart Voting chatbot on the Telegram messaging app and posted a list of Smart Voting approved candidates in Google Docs and on YouTube.

Navalny’s ally Ivan Zhdanov tweeted a screenshot of what appears to be an email from Apple on Friday, explaining why the app should be removed from the store. The screenshot cites the designation of extremism for the Anti-Corruption Foundation and allegations of electoral interference. “Google, Apple are making a big mistake,” Zhdanov wrote.

Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s top strategist, wrote on Facebook that the companies were “bowing to the Kremlin’s blackmail.” He noted that the move does not affect users who downloaded the app and it should work fine.

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 points 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.

Information for this article was provided by Anton Troianovski and Adam Satariano of the New York Times; and by Daria Litvinova, Kelvin Chan, Matt O’Brien, Vladimir Kondrashov and Anna Frants of the Associated Press.


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