Google and Apple give in to the Kremlin by vetoing a Navalni app
The Russian parliamentary elections, which are held from Friday to Sunday, kicked off with a setback for opposition team Alexei Navalni. US tech giants Google and Apple gave in to authorities’ demands and removed activist app from their stores in line, precisely on the very day when Russians can start voting online and at physical ballot boxes. It is one of the tools of the so-called “smart vote”, which proposes to unite the voters of the opposition around the candidate who has the best chance of beating the candidates of the party of Vladimir Putin, United Russia.
At the start of the electoral nomination, one of the first to vote was President Vladimir Putin. He did so virtually, since he is in quarantine after detecting a coronavirus outbreak among “dozens of people” in his environment, as the president explained. Telematic voting was previously used in the 2020 constitutional referendum and in some local elections such as Moscow in the same year. These elections put smart voting to the test, a test Navalni’s tool more than endorsed by pushing for the election of 20 of the city’s 45 Duma seats.
The tech companies’ decision comes the day after representatives of the two companies appeared before a committee of the Federation Council, Russia’s upper chamber, where the threats were explicit. “People associated with Apple and Google must be aware that both their deliberately illegal actions and their criminal inaction will inevitably have legal consequences for them, including criminal ones,” warned the general of the Federal Security Service (FSB, for its acronym in Russian). and vice-chairman of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, Vladimir Dzhabarov, quoted by the Interfax news agency.
For his part, Vadim Subbotin, deputy director of Roskomnadzor, the Russian telecommunications regulator, declared that “the representatives of these companies were unable to give any explanations” within the said commission. Speaking to the national agency Tass, Subbotin made threats against these companies and raised the possibility of imposing fines according to their business volumes.
The resignation of Google and Apple has settled like a pitcher of cold water among opponents. “They have become instruments of censorship,” denounced María Pevchik, head of research at the Navalni Anticorruption Foundation. The opposition circle reacted unanimously on Twitter, a social network which suffered a slowdown in its traffic in the Eurasian country following protests against the opponent’s arrest. “Wait: the state will shut down the Internet. Reality: The Internet itself is shutting down out of fear, ”said Ivan Zhdanov, director of the organization after publishing Apple’s response to their complaints.
“The app will be removed from the App Store because it contains illegal content in Russia,” the multinational said in a statement. “We know that this question is complicated”, he continued before specifying that “it will continue to be available in other territories”.
US companies are justifying the move in an order issued in June to remove all content related to Navalni. It was then that the Russian authorities declared all organizations and individuals linked to militant extremists, thus depriving them of any political participation.
Despite attempts to ban the smart voting initiative in Russia, the list of opposition candidates remains easy to find. The government has blocked six VPN services, an option that allows you to hide the user’s address to access banned pages, such as the Navalni website. In response, the jailed opposition team posted videos on YouTube showing the candidates most likely to beat their United Russia rivals district by district.
Besides the two Californian giants, the Kremlin has accused other tech companies of interfering in the elections. According to Russian regulators, a dozen foreign companies allow authorities to bypass restrictions on banned political material, including Cisco and Cloudfare, and it’s not just Americans: several are based in Germany, Ukraine and Japan.
Such is the Kremlin’s concern about the impact of these initiatives on the elections that the American Ambassador to Moscow, John Sullivan, was called in for consultation on September 10 by the Russian Foreign Ministry to denounce alleged interference by Washington in the electoral process. “Recent events have justified our long-standing fears of direct involvement of Western technology monopolies in attempts to prosper in Russia’s internal affairs,” the ministry’s communications official said at the time.
The removal of the application comes after several months of strong pressure on the platform and its users. In July, a woolen company in Stavropol (southwest Russia) registered the mark in record time and two months later it already had a ruling in its favor banning Google and its Russian rival Yandex from display the initiative on their search engines. But, beyond the anecdote, the real harassment was suffered by its subscribers in their flesh. In June, the addresses and contacts of those who signed up for the initiative were leaked on Telegram, and then they received a warning with threatening accents: the police went to the homes of many of them to tell them that more information about them had been gathered. . The reaction from the Navalni team came late: in September, they backed down and stopped requiring registration to access their platform.
The smart voting proposals were not without controversy among opponents on the occasion. Of the 450 seats in dispute, 225 are elected in constituencies where only the most voted go to the chamber. Navalni’s plan is to reduce the parliamentary presence of Putin’s party by pushing the strongest rival candidates into each area, and he makes no distinction by ideology. Thus, the formations which emerge the most strengthened are the Communist Party, with 137 recommended candidates and which considers Navalni as “a traitor”, and the populist LDPR, with 20; While the Democrats of Yábloko, facing the opposition for having started the demonstrations in the street, have barely 10 candidates on the lists.
In addition, the Communist Party and the LDPR share two characteristics: their leaders contested – and lost – all presidential elections held in Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and both parties supported almost all of the presidential elections. legal reforms. undertakings by Putin during his 21 years in power, including those that led to Navalni and thousands of others being declared extremists.