‘We know this stuff is complicated, but’ Apple and Google cave to Russian state officials, disabling access to Navalny’s voting initiative
As nationwide voting in Russia got underway and just hours after company representatives met with members of the Federation Council’s “Sovereignty Committee,” the American tech giants Apple and Google both blocked Russian users’ access to Alexey Navalny’s mobile app on their online stores, the App Store and Google Play. Still accessible to users outside Russia, the Navalny app was one of the key platforms the imprisoned opposition leader’s team hoped to use to disseminate strategic voting recommendations in parliamentary races across the country. Meduza summarizes how the Russian authorities managed to disable the anti-Kremlin opposition’s key online mobilization tools, precisely when activists needed them most.
What it took to kill the app
On Twitter, former Anti-Corruption Foundation head Ivan Zhdanov shared a message received from Apple where the company explained that the Navalny app is now blocked for users inside Russia because it “includes content that is illegal in Russia, which is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.” “We know this stuff is complicated, but it is your responsibility to understand and make sure your app conforms with all local laws,” Apple explained, going on to say that Russian officials “have also determined that the app violates the legislation of the Russian Federation by enabling interference in elections.”
On Twitter, some users in Russia reported that the App Store now displays a misleading message when trying to search for the Navalny app, claiming falsely that “the developer deleted this app from the App Store.”
Russia’s federal censor, RKN, first ordered Apple and Google to disable Russians’ access to the Navalny app on August 19, citing its connections to Navalny’s outlawed Anti-Corruption Foundation. On September 16, the agency threatened the two companies with massive fines for ignoring its demands.
Sources told The New York Times that the Russian authorities directly threatened individual staff at Google inside Russia, naming specific employees, if the company refused to disable local access to the Navalny app.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Friday that the Putin administration welcomes the decisions by Apple and Google to remove the Navalny app from their stores in Russia, calling it “compliance with legal requirements.”
What is Smart Vote?
Political scientists Mikhail Turchenko and Grigorii Golosov argue that the Smart Vote project has the capacity to boost endorsed candidates’ performance at the polls in major cities by 5–6 percent, based on the project’s measured effect in last year’s local elections. “Aware that Smart Vote is a real threat,” the two scholars argued in an article for Riddle, the Russian authorities have responded with a police crackdown and changes to voting that complicate monitoring. In a separate text, Golosov expanded on the logic that drives Smart Vote, explaining that the anti-Kremlin opposition must avoid dispersing its votes in order to challenge United Russia’s inherent advantage as the biggest party in first-past-the-post voting, which decides half the seats in the State Duma.
The app stores aren’t the only front in the war against Navalny’s online mobilization
After the company’s representatives met with members of the Russian Parliament’s upper house on Thursday, Apple also suspended access inside Russia to the company’s new “Private Relay” beta, a service that hides users’ IP addresses and Internet browsing activity and protects their unencrypted Internet traffic. Apple initially offered the service in Russia. Private Relay is also not available in China, Belarus, Colombia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Uganda, and the Philippines.
Ahead of this weekend’s parliamentary elections, RKN started blocking Russian Internet users’ access to Smart Vote on various platforms. The agency also ordered Apple, Google, Cloudflare, and Cisco to withhold services to the project that allow it to circumvent Russia’s censorship efforts.
As an injunctive measure in a copyright lawsuit brought by a wool manufacturing company that acquired the trademark rights to Smart Vote under mysterious circumstances, Russia’s legal system has also prohibited Yandex and Google from displaying the phrase “umnoe golosovanie” (smart vote, or smart voting) in search results for users inside Russia. Yandex ultimately removed Smart Vote’s website from its search results, after the Russian government added the URL to its registry of illegal online resources. Court marshals later visited Google’s Moscow headquarters to demand that the company’s search engine stop returning results referring to Smart Vote.
On September 15, Navalny’s top associates — now working mostly abroad to avoid felony prosecution at home for supposed “extremist” activity — published Smart Vote’s candidate endorsements. A day later, the team reported that Smart Vote’s website and its official bot on Telegram came under “powerful” DDoS attacks.