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.”
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.
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.
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