2021-09-17 12:22:26 Google and Apple Remove App Aimed at Spurring Protest Voting in Russia

Google and Apple Remove App Aimed at Spurring Protest Voting in Russia

MOSCOW, Russia — An app designed by Russian activists to coordinate protest voting in this weekend’s elections vanished from the country’s Google and Apple app stores on Friday, dealing a major blow to opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny and allies hoping to destabilize President Vladimir V. Putin’s ruling party.

According to a person familiar with the company’s decision, Google removed the app Friday morning after Russian authorities issued a direct threat of criminal prosecution against the company’s staff in the country, naming specific individuals. The move comes just one day after a Russian lawmaker threatened employees of the two technology companies with retaliation, saying they would be “punished.”

The individual did not want to be identified for fear of upsetting the Russian government.

When asked about the app on his regular call with journalists on Friday, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said, “That app is illegal.” “Both platforms have been notified, and it appears that they made these decisions in accordance with the law,” he said.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment on the Navalny app’s availability in its app store.

The app vanished just as voting began in Russia’s three-day parliamentary election, in which Mr. Navalny’s team hoped to use its app, called “Navalny,” to consolidate the opposition vote in each of the country’s 225 electoral districts.

“Removing the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship,” said Ivan Zhdanov, a Navalny aide, on Twitter. “Russia’s authoritarian government and propaganda apparatus will be overjoyed.”

Maintaining open, uncensored access to their services, particularly in authoritarian countries, is one of the most difficult challenges for American tech companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter. Authorities in countries such as India, Myanmar, and Turkey are increasingly pressuring companies to censor certain political speech or to order internet outages to prevent access to the internet.

Civil society organizations have warned that forcing companies to comply with a patchwork of laws and regulations risks creating a more fractured internet in which the products and services available to people will vary depending on where they are.

The threat to prosecute local employees is an escalation by the Kremlin as it attempts to persuade Western tech behemoths to join a broader internet crackdown. Roskomnadzor, the country’s internet regulator, has repeatedly demanded that the companies remove certain content or face fines or restrictions on access to their products. The government claims that American internet companies are meddling in Russian domestic affairs by allowing anti-Kremlin activists to freely use their platforms; Mr. Navalny’s movement was outlawed this summer as extremist.

In recent days, the Russian government has been increasingly open about its willingness to use threats to prevent the app’s use. “Specific crimes are being committed with the participation of Apple and Google, the scale of which may only increase in the coming days,” Vladimir Dzhabarov, a member of Russia’s upper house of Parliament, said on Thursday. “Individuals who assist their parent companies in evading responsibility on Russian Federation territory will be punished.”

Bailiffs arrived at Google’s offices earlier this week to enforce court-ordered restrictions on the protest voting campaign, according to state media.

For weeks, Russian authorities have been putting pressure on Apple and Google to remove the Navalny team’s voting app. With Mr. Navalny’s websites blocked within Russia, the app became a way for exiled allies of the imprisoned politician to reach a wider audience. Almost every smartphone runs Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating system, making their app stores the primary channel for distributing any product to the general public.

Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the American ambassador to Moscow, John J. Sullivan, and announced that “American ‘digital giants’” had violated Russian law “in the context of the election preparation and conduct.”

“The patience of the Russian side, which has for the time being refrained from erecting barriers to American business in Russia, is not unlimited,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria V. Zakharova on Thursday.

The “Navalny” app is central to a protest-voting strategy dubbed “smart voting” by the opposition leader. Elections in Russia are not free and fair, but the Kremlin maintains a semblance of popular legitimacy by holding elections in which a stable of dull parties splits the opposition vote.

The Navalny strategy, which was first deployed regionally in 2019, aims to turn Mr. Putin’s system of “managed democracy” against him. The goal is to defeat as many candidates from the ruling United Russia party as possible by having all opposition-minded voters in each district vote for the same challenger, whether or not they agree with their positions. The process is coordinated by the “Navalny” app, which requests a user’s address and responds with the name of the candidate for whom they should vote.

On Friday, the Navalny team announced that they would try to get the names of their “smart voting” picks through alternative means, such as automated responses in the messaging app Telegram. They did, however, express their displeasure with Apple and Google for apparently caving in to Kremlin pressure.

“This shameful day will live on in history,” Mr. Navalny’s longtime chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, wrote on his Telegram account.

Adam Satariano reported from London, and Anton Troianovski from Moscow. From Moscow, Oleg Matsnev and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.

Source link

Other News

Subscribe to our World NEWS Letter

Google and Apple Remove App Aimed at Spurring Protest Voting in Russia