In Russia, Apple and Google Staff Get Muscled Up By the State

The Kremlin had earlier this month asked several Big Tech companies to suppress opposition during nationwide elections in Russia. Their answer was unambiguous: no. Two weeks later, Apple & Google removed the Smart Voting app from their app stores. This was Alexey Navalny, an opposition leader, and his primary tool to consolidate votes against Vladimir Putin's regime. Telegram and Google's YouTube both restricted Navalny's access to opposition candidate recommendations. Putin was obviously thrilled.
The Russian opposition was not only unable to communicate with the US tech platforms, but also suffered from the sudden knee-bending of the US tech platforms. This episode also highlighted the dangers of a new Kremlin strategy: To force foreign tech companies to send employees to the ground so that they can be threatened and coerced into complying with the Kremlin's will. This episode, despite the fact that analysts and politicians around the world may be able to discuss internet censorship technical terms, is a strong reminder of how old-fashioned force can effectively tighten a state's grip on the web.

Putin's regime relies on thuggery to oppress. This includes beating protesters, attempting to assassinate Navalny but failing to do so. He was also jailed while he was still recovering after being poisoned. It was no surprise that Navaly's imprisonment provoked mass protests across the country. The Kremlin wanted to ensure that every election risk was managed, even by strong-arming US tech firms.

Putin's greatest target was Navalnys Smart Voting Project. This project has been successful in disseminating candidate suggestions to interested voters over the past few years. It is now able to take away parliamentary seats from Putin's ruling party, United Russia. Russian internet regulators demanded that American tech platforms block Smart Voting. Russian mobile network providers were able block Russia's entire access to Google Documents because Navalnys team posted a document listing United Russia challengers. The regime became code and muscle after Apple and Google refused to delete the oppositions app.

Putin signed a law in July that required foreign information technology companies to open offices in Russia. While the Kremlin claims this is to comply with Russian security laws, it really is about getting people on the ground to bully. While not every platform has set up shop yet (Twitter is still a holdout), Apple and Google have. When they refused to comply with censorship requests, the Kremlin sent armed men into Google's Moscow offices to spend hours in their presence. Russian parliament summoned representatives of both Google and Apples offices for a session about the Navalny app. They were threatened and berated. According to reports, the government named certain Google employees that it would sue for not deleting the app. The same thing happened with Apple.

Poof! The next morning, both companies disbanded and removed Smart Voting form their app stores. Apple also agreed to disable Private Relay Russia, which is a feature that allows no one to see the user's identity or what they are viewing when they browse the internet using Safari. The Russian Federal Security Services, already a strong force in spying on internet traffic, was undoubtedly strengthened by this. YouTube, which is widely used in Russia, removed a video showing Navalnys camp listing the names of the leading opposition candidates. Telegram also blocked access to Navalny's election services.

This scandal reveals the misguidedness that has been a hallmark of American internet freedom rhetoric for decades. It promoted the idea that Western tech companies that operate in authoritarian countries would promote democracy. For example, during the Arab Spring, many Americans ignored the importance local blogs and citizen organizing. This debacle reveals the misguidedness of decades of American internet freedom rhetoric that promoted the view that Western tech companies operating in authoritarian states would lead to democracy.