Google and Apple removed a “Smart Voting” election app from their respective stores today as the three-day parliamentary polls open. The app is said to help Russians vote strategically to reduce the number of President Vladimir Putin’s allies in office. The removal comes as Russian authorities try to restrict residents and citizens from using the app under the claim of election interference.
The app was removed from Google and Apple app stores after Russia’s federal censorship agency, Roskomnadzor, allegedly accused the American technology giants of interfering in Russian elections. The agency has demanded that the companies remove specific content, or risk facing fines or restrictions.
A Legal Fight Between the Kremlin and Big Tech
On Thursday, Vladimir Dzhabarov, a member of Russia’s upper house of Parliament stated, “With the participation of Apple and Google, specific crimes are being committed, the scale of which may only increase in the coming days.” Dzhabarov went on to say, “Individuals contributing to their parent companies’ evasion of responsibility on the territory of the Russian Federation will be punished.” The accusations appear to be connected to a larger legal fight between the Kremlin and big tech regarding Russia’s control over information dispersed inside the country.
A source close to Google’s decision told New York Times that Russian authorities issued a direct threat of criminal prosecution against Google’s staff who reside in the country. According to that source, the threat named specific individuals and mentioned that Google and Apple employees would be “punished.” The New York Times’ source declined to be identified fearing retaliation.
Activist Navalny ally Ivan Zhdanov stated on Twitter, “Removing the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship,” and “Russia’s authoritarian government and propaganda will be thrilled.”
Alexei Navalny’s Connection
The app was developed by Russian activists in support of anti-corruption lawyer and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who is currently being held for allegedly violating parole. Navalny was arrested in February of 2021 when he returned from Germany, after recovering from a poisoning that many, including the United States and the European Union, believe is connected to the ruling Russian party. The Kremlin still denies any role in the poisoning.
At this time, Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation nonprofit is listed as an extremist organization by the Russian government. Navalny’s websites are currently blocked inside Russia, but the app still allows exiled Navalny allies to organize and support Navalny’s mission.
The Navalny app team is said to be using other methods to communicate and organize their voting efforts but is disappointed in the decision made by Apple and Google.
Censorship in Russia
Although Russia calls itself a democracy, censorship in Russia is nothing new. In 2012, Russia began blacklisting certain websites. The initial blacklisted websites only included those involved with criminal activities and terrorism. However, it wasn’t long before the list was expanded to include LGBTQ, dating, and pornographic websites.
Then in 2015, a new law was passed that targeted big tech companies like Google and Apple. The new law required foreign tech companies to hold their data regarding Russia and its residents and citizens on Russian servers, where the government could access it.
In late 2019, Russia announced the new law that requires all devices, including phones, laptops, and PCs, to be sold with Russian software pre-installed. The law was supposed to be implemented in several stages, beginning in January of 2020. However, it received a lot of pushback from both Russian and non-Russian tech companies and was not put into place until April of this year. The Russian government has stated that the law is to support home-grown Russian tech companies, but many do not believe this reasoning.