Apple and Google have dropped the Navalny app after pressure built up on the Kremlin
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Apple and Google have removed a tactical voting app made by supporters of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny from their online stores after strong pressure from the Kremlin, as voting began in the country. Parliamentary elections.
Apple’s Google Play Store and App Store blocked other app downloads in Russia Friday morning after “multiple legal demands, not requests” from the country’s telecom regulator and law enforcement, according to a person close to the situation.
The move is the biggest concession yet by Western tech companies to the Kremlin’s increasingly stringent demands for censorship of online content. President Vladimir Putin has said that the internet can make society “collapse from within” if it is not “subjected to the formal legal norms and moral laws of society”.
The person close to the situation also said that Google employees received both public and private threats of criminal prosecution if the company did not comply with the Kremlin’s request to remove the app from the store and search engines.
They said armed men, whom employees believe were police officers, spent several hours at Google’s Moscow offices on Monday. Russia’s Sheriff’s Service said on Tuesday its officers had visited the company to demand the company comply with a Moscow court ruling to remove the app from search results.
The person believes that threats to employees of this nature are unprecedented, saying that they have “never got this bad.”
Both Apple and Google declined to comment on Friday.
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, said US tech companies “capitulated to Kremlin blackmail” after the app – designed to encourage tactical voting against Putin’s United Russia party – disappeared from the App Store and Google Play Store.
This is a crucial moment for Russia. “It appears that the big tech companies are beginning to cooperate more closely with the repression of the authorities,” said Alina Ebivanova, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
Apple justified the decision by a court ruling in Moscow in June that declared Navalny’s Foundation “extremist organization”, according to a screenshot posted by Ivan Zhdanov, the former director of the opposition group.
The anti-corruption activist was arrested in January when he returned to Russia from Germany, where he was treated for a nerve agent poisoning Putin accuses him of ordering.
After Navalny’s supporters staged protests in dozens of cities nationwide, Russia responded with an unprecedented crackdown on dissent that forced most of his top allies into exile.
Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters that the Kremlin welcomed the decision of the technology groups. “This application is illegal on the territory of our country,” Peskov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
The move signaled the Kremlin’s determination to clear the internet of the opposition ahead of the country’s three-day election, which United Russia is expected to easily win despite growing discontent over declining living standards.
A person close to the Kremlin said Putin has made internet use a priority.
“Imagine if it was the other way around and [a Russian platform] 30% of the US search market? These platforms are global and politics is national. So you either have to make them comply with the law, or ban them.
After dozens of Navalny’s allies dropped out of the ballot, his team is urging his supporters to vote for Kremlin-approved “loyal opposition” candidates recommended by the app. Peskov said the tactic was “provocative” and would harm voters.
Russia has accused Silicon Valley companies of interfering with the vote by refusing to remove any reference to the Navalny app from the Internet.
At a hearing Thursday, lawmakers then threatened local Apple and Google employees with criminal prosecution if they did not comply, as well as fines ranging from 5 percent to 20 percent of the companies’ domestic revenue.