Google and Apple quietly removed an anti-establishment app from their apps stores as voting opened for Russia's lower house or State Duma. This is just one of a number of concessions Apple has made to Russia's lower house or State Duma. Their demands are likely to only get more aggressive.
The incident highlighted the incongruous compromises many tech companies make in order to be able to operate in certain areas. It also highlights the demands of authoritarian governments.
For weeks, the Russian government had been pressuring Apple and Google to remove the voting app. They threatened fines and even accused the companies of election interference. It was created by Aleksei Navalny's associates and offered suggestions across all 225 Russian voting districts to help candidates win the most likely victory over the ruling United Russia party in each race. The app is not available for download. However, voting is still open until the weekend. Fraudulent imposter apps have begun to appear in its place.
According to the Associated Press on Thursday, representatives from both tech companies met Russian Federation Council officials. After which, the Council issued a statement saying that Apple would comply the takedown demand. According to a source familiar with the Google decision to delete the app, Russian authorities threatened certain employees with criminal prosecution and serious criminal charges. This forced the company's hand.
WIRED reached out to Apple for comment but Apple declined. Google declined to comment.
Ivan Zhdanov tweeted that removing the Navalny app's from stores was a shameful act political censorship. He is an ally of Navalany. Zhdanov also tweeted an alleged screenshot of an Apple email sent to the creators the voting app. It described Navalny's opposition group and its backers in extremism and stated that the app contains content that is illegal within Russia.
Apple also reportedly removed its iCloud Private Relay feature in Russia today. This masks IP addresses and browsing activity to combat mass surveillance. Although the service is available in beta at the moment, Apple has not made it available to users in China, Saudi Arabia or the Philippines for "regulatory purposes." However, it had launched the service in Russia.
Russia's action against the voting app is just one example of a wider trend. iPhones and other iOS devices made in Russia began to come with an additional step in the set-up process. This prompts users for a list of Russian apps. Users can not download the apps and they don't have to be installed. However, Apple allowed this change to comply with Russian law.
It's not Russia alone that is making more restrictive demands. China has had a long-standing control over international tech companies. This includes a requirement that foreign services be run on servers owned and maintained in China by Chinese cloud companies. International tech companies like Facebook and Twitter have been forced to compromise their privacy, as has India. However, something as blatantly political and dangerous as the removal of a voting guide app from Google Play is a new frontier.
This episode comes just days after another Apple controversy about a company's plan to scan iPhones and iPads for child sexual abuse material. Apple has now rescheduled the project following concerns from security and privacy advocates that foreign governments could use such a service to gain access to customer data. Apple had previously stated that it would not accept such requests.