In August 2020, Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist whom the Wall Street Journal calls “the man Vladimir Putin fears most”, was medically evacuated to Berlin after being poisoned by a nerve agent that was linked to Russia’s Federal Security Service. He returned to Russia in January 2021 and was arrested for a “parole violation”, triggering mass protests across the country. In February he was sentenced to 30-months in a labor colony in Vladamir Oblast.
Navalny has sought to maximize the opposition’s strength with a strategy of “Smart Voting” under which the disparate opposition groups agree on a single candidate in each of Russia’s 225 legislative districts in Russia’s parliamentary elections. His supporters created an App, known as the Navalny App, that listed the “Smart Voting” candidate for each district in Russia’s 2021 parliamentary elections (Sept. 17-19). User’s merely had to provide their address and the app provided the name of the candidate they should vote for. With Putin’s popularity sagging, the app was perceived as a serious threat by the Russian government.
In June, the Russian government banned the project, won a court order labeling its organizers as “extremists” and began pressuring Apple and Google to remove the App. On Thursday, after meeting with Russian authorities, the two tech giants agreed to remove the app. Google reportedly was threatened with the arrest and prosecution of certain Russian employees with “serious criminal charges” and armed bailiffs came to their offices that day. Apple also disabled its iCloud Private Relay feature which masks users’ IP address and browsing activities to counter mass surveillance. The Navalny App, however, continued to operate for users who had already downloaded it, but updates are not available and misleading imposter apps have already started to pop up in its place.
The tech giants have been criticized for silently caving to Russian demands:
- “Removing the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship. Russia’s authoritarian government and proaganda will be thrilled.” (Ivan Zhdanov, aide to Navalny.)
- “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.” (Kira Yarmysh, Mr. Navalny’s press secretary).
- “The companies are in a really difficult position but they have put themselves there. They are de facto carrying out an element of Russian repression. Whether it’s justifiable or not, it’s complicity and the companies need to explain it.” (David Kaye, a former United Nations official responsible for investigating freedom of expression issues.)
This included a Washington Post editorial:
Yet powerful as the government may be, these trillion-dollar companies are powerful, too. Why else was the Kremlin spooked into mounting so public a pressure campaign? The silent capitulation by some of the United States’ most prominent businesses sends a message to authoritarians: You can get away with this, in Russia and anywhere else politicians are worried about the people having too much information — and too much swayApple and Google are showing Putin just how much he can get away with
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow also weighed in with a full segment on the removal.
As Wired magazine noted, the tech giants’ action also highlighted “the uncomfortable compromises that many tech companies strike in order to operate in certain regions, as well as the increasingly brazen demands of authoritarian governments”.
In 2007, Yahoo! executives were blasted by Congress for their providing the Chinese government with information leading to the arrest of dissidents. While Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) called the action “indefensible,” it remains to be seen whether there will be repercussions for Apple or Google from the action.
As one human rights advocate noted:
So keeping up this pressure on tech companies to protect free expression is key. Authoritarian governments are watching around the world to see what’s happening. And we need to make sure that this precedent isn’t accepted.Isabel Linzer, Freedom House
- Anton Troianovski and Adam Satariano, Google and Apple, Under Pressure From Russia, Remove Voting App, New York Times (Sept. 17, 2021).
- Lily Hay Newman, Apple and Google Go Further Than Ever to Appease Russia, Wired (Sept. 17, 2021).
- Craig Timberg, Robyn Dixon, Gerrit De Vynck and Reed Albergotti, Human rights advocates decry Apple, Google decision to pull Navalny app as Russia voting begins, Washington Post (Sept. 17, 2021).