MOSCOW – Apple and Google removed an app that on Friday removed an app to coordinate protest votes in this weekend’s Russian election, a blow to President Vladimir V. Putin’s opponents and a demonstration of the borders of Silicon Valley when it comes to defending against dissent around the world.
The decisions came after Russian authorities, who deemed the app illegal, threatened to prosecute local Apple and Google employees – a sharp escalation in the Kremlin’s campaign to curb the country’s largely uncensored internet. A person familiar with Google’s decision said authorities had identified certain people who would be prosecuted and asked them to remove the app.
The person refused to be identified because they feared it would upset the Russian government. Google has more than 100 employees in the country.
Apple didn’t respond to phone calls, emails, or text messages asking for comments.
The app was developed and promoted by allies of opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who hoped it would help consolidate the protest votes in each of Russia’s 225 constituencies. It disappeared from the two technology platforms when voting began in the three-day parliamentary elections, in which Putin’s United Russia party – in a carefully staged system – has a dominant advantage.
Mr Navalny’s team reacted indignantly to the decision, hinting that the companies had made a harmful concession to the Russians. “The removal of the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship,” said an advisor to Mr Navalny, Ivan Zhdanov, said on twitter. “Russia’s authoritarian government and propaganda will be delighted.”
The decisions also met with criticism from freedom of expression activists in the West. “Companies are in a really difficult position, but they have sat down there.” David Kaye, a former United Nations official in charge of investigating freedom of expression issues, said in an interview. “You are in fact carrying out an element of Russian repression. Justified or not, it is complicity and companies have to explain it. ”
The extraordinary pressure on Google and Apple is an indication of the threat The Kremlin sees Mr. Nawalny’s efforts to achieve “smart voting” and the growing role technology plays as an instrument of political power. The approval ratings for “United Russia” in state polls have plummeted to around 30 percent, compared to 40 percent before the last parliamentary election in 2016. A consolidation of the opposition votes could defeat the candidates for “United Russia” in the contested electoral districts, as only a simple majority is required to win.
Mr Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, argued that the app was illegal in Russia when asked about it on Friday during his regular call to journalists; Mr Navalny’s movement was ostracized as extremist this summer. “Both platforms have been notified and made these decisions in accordance with the law, it appears,” he said.
Maintaining open, uncensored access to their services, especially in authoritarian countries, is becoming one of the most annoying challenges for American tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter. In countries like India, Myanmar and Turkey, authorities are putting increasing pressure on companies to censor certain political statements or order internet outages to block access to the internet.
Civil society groups have warned that companies will be forced to abide by a patchwork of laws and regulations that run the risk of making the internet more fragmented, where access to information and products depends on where people are . Businesses need to weigh the value of having their services available in a country like Russia, where they are considered more independent than local tech platforms, against the cost of a complete exit, as Google did in China.
The pressure on Silicon Valley to block certain content on their platforms isn’t just coming from more authoritarian governments. In the United States and Europe, policy makers are calling for companies to do more to combat hate speech, misinformation and other harmful content. Republicans in the US argue that they are being censored online.
In Russia, the national internet regulator Roskomnadzor has repeatedly called for companies to remove certain content under threat of fines or restricted access to their products. The government says American internet companies are interfering in Russia’s internal affairs by allowing anti-Kremlin activists to freely use their platforms.
The Russian government had been more and more open in recent days to prevent the app from being used with detention threats. “With the participation of Apple and Google, specific crimes are being committed, the extent of which could increase in the coming days,” said Vladimir Jabarov, a member of the Russian upper house of parliament, on Thursday. “People who contribute to circumventing the responsibility of their parent companies on the territory of the Russian Federation will be punished.”
It remains to be seen whether the Apple and Google admission on Friday will mark a turning point in how energetically American tech giants are ready to withstand pressure from the Kremlin. As Russia cracks down on dissenting opinions this year, the most popular Silicon Valley platforms remain open to the public so journalists and activists can continue to spread their message. On YouTube, for example, the Navalny team’s investigations into corruption among the Russian elite regularly receive millions of clicks.
But Friday’s move could encourage the Kremlin, as well as governments in other parts of the world, to use threats of prosecuting employees to put pressure on companies. It is a test of Silicon Valley ideals around free speech and an open internet that are weighed not only against profit, but also against the safety of their workers.
Removal of Facebook and Twitter posts, YouTube videos, and other internet content happens fairly regularly as companies try to comply with local laws around the world. In China, Apple removed apps that conflicted with state censorship, including software that would give Chinese users access to 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 national borders.
But Friday’s Google and Apple removals have little precedent, given the turnout and high-profile campaign by Mr Navalny against the Kremlin, said Natalia Krapiva, legal advisor for Access Now, a civil society group that tracks internet censorship. “This is really a new phenomenon to investigate in the app stores,” said Ms. Krapiva.
While companies would prefer to be viewed as impartial platforms, Ms. Krapiva said industry leaders should be more vigorous in defending their freedom of expression and an open internet, especially if company employees were threatened with prosecution.
Otherwise, “it looks like you are on the side of the government,” said Ms. Krapiva.
Governments in the past have seized the prospect of prosecution, although incidents rarely go public. In 2016, a Facebook manager was arrested in Brazil after the company refused to reveal WhatsApp data in connection with an investigation into drug trafficking. Authorities in India and Thailand have also threatened prison terms to put social media companies under pressure.
The Russian authorities have been urging Apple and Google to remove the Navalny team’s voting app for weeks. With Mr Navalny’s websites blocked in Russia, the app became a loophole that allowed the imprisoned politician’s exiled allies to continue reaching a wide audience. Almost every smartphone runs Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating system, which makes their app stores the most important artery for getting any product to the public.
The Russian State Department last week summoned the American ambassador to Moscow, John J. Sullivan, and announced that “American ‘digital giants’” had broken Russian law “in the context of the preparation and conduct of elections”.
Bailiffs visited Google’s offices earlier this week to enforce court-ordered measures against the protest election campaign, state media reported.
The Navalny app will continue to work on Apple and Android phones for those who have already downloaded the software.
The app is central to the protest strategy, which the opposition leader calls “smart voting”. The aim is to defeat as many candidates from the ruling United Russia party as possible by having all opposition voters in each district vote for the same challenger – regardless of whether they agree with their views or not.
The “Navalny” app coordinates the process, asks for the address of a user and answers with the name of the candidate for whom he is to vote.
The Navalny team tried on Friday to determine the names of their “smart voting” selection using other methods, for example through automated responses in the Telegram messaging app. But they voiced their anger at Apple and Google over what they saw as Kremlin pressure.
“This shameful day will stay in history for a long time,” wrote Leonid Volkov, Mr. Navalny’s long-time chief of staff, on his telegram account.
Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow, and Adam Satariano from London. Oleg Matsnew and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.