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Google and Apple, under pressure from Russia, remove voting app

  • Anton Troianovski and Adam Satariano, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-09-18 12:18:56 BdST

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny appears on a video monitor during a court hearing in Moscow on Jan 28, 2021. An app designed by Russian activists to coordinate protest voting in this weekend’s elections disappeared from the Google and Apple app stores in the country on Friday, Sept 17, 2021, a major blow to the opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and allies who hoped to subvert the commanding position of President Vladimir Putin’s governing party. Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

Apple and Google removed an app meant to coordinate protest voting in this weekend’s Russian elections from the country Friday, a blow to the opponents of President Vladimir Putin and a display of Silicon Valley’s limits when it comes to resisting crackdowns on dissent around the world.

The decisions came after Russian authorities, who claim the app is illegal, threatened to prosecute local employees of Apple and Google — a sharp escalation in the Kremlin’s campaign to rein in the country’s largely uncensored internet. A person familiar with Google’s decision said authorities had named specific individuals who would face prosecution, prompting it to remove the app.

The person declined to be identified for fear of angering the Russian government. Google has more than 100 employees in the country.

Apple did not respond to phone calls, emails or text messages seeking comment.

The app was created and promoted by allies of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who were hoping to use it to consolidate the protest vote in each of Russia’s 225 electoral districts. It disappeared from the two technology platforms just as voting got underway in the three-day parliamentary election in which Putin’s United Russia party — in a carefully stage-managed system — holds a commanding advantage.

Navalny’s team reacted with outrage to the decision, suggesting the companies had made a damaging concession to the Russians.

“Removing the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship,” an aide to Navalny, Ivan Zhdanov, said on Twitter.

The decisions also drew criticism from free-speech activists in the West.

“The companies are in a really difficult position, but they have put themselves there,” said David Kaye, a former United Nations official responsible for investigating freedom of expression issues. “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.”

The extraordinary pressure on Google and Apple is an indication of the threat the Kremlin sees in Navalny’s “smart-voting” effort and the growing role technology plays as an instrument of political power.

Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, argued that the app was illegal in Russia when asked about it Friday on his regular call with journalists; Navalny’s movement was outlawed as extremist this summer.

© The New York Times Company