Apple and Google have removed the ‘Navalny’ voting app in Russia.

MOSCOW – An app designed by Russian activists to coordinate protest voting in this weekend’s election disappeared from the country’s Google and Apple app stores on Friday, according to opposition leader Alexei Navalny and allies. A big blow that was expected to ruin the commanding position. President Vladimir V. Putin’s governing party.

According to a person familiar with the company’s decision, Google removed the app on Friday morning after Russian authorities issued a direct threat to prosecute the company’s staff in the country. The move comes as a Russian lawmaker raises the possibility of retaliation against employees of two technology companies, saying they will be “punished”.

The man refused to identify himself for fear of offending the Russian government.

Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said on Friday that the app was “illegal” when journalists were asked about it on a regular call. “Both platforms have been notified and they have made these decisions in accordance with the law, as it seems,” he said.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment on the availability of the Navalny app in its store.

The app disappeared during voting in the three-day parliamentary elections, in which Mr Navalny’s team launched their own app – called “Navalny” – to strengthen opposition votes in each of Russia’s 225 constituencies. Was hoping to use

“Removing the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship,” said Mr Navalny, an aide to Ivan Zhdanov. Said on Twitter. “Russia’s dictatorship and propaganda will be sensational.”

Maintaining open, uncensored access to their services, especially in dictatorial countries, is becoming a daunting challenge for US tech companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter. In countries such as India, Myanmar and Turkey, authorities are pressuring companies to censor some political speeches, or order Internet shutdowns to block access to the web.

Civil society groups have warned that forcing companies to comply with laws and regulations is more of a risk of a broken Internet, where products and services available to people will depend on where they are.

The Kremlin is threatening to sue local employees as it seeks to persuade Western tech companies to comply with the widespread crackdown on the Internet. The country’s Internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, has repeatedly called for companies to remove some content because of fines or restrictions on access to their products. The government says US Internet companies are interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs by allowing anti-Kremlin activists to use their platforms freely. Mr Navalny’s movement has been described as extremist this summer.

The Russian government has been increasingly blunt in recent days about its willingness to use threats to block the use of the app. “With the partnership of Apple and Google, certain crimes are being committed, the scale of which may only increase in the coming days,” Russia’s upper house member Vladimir Zabarov said Thursday. “Those who participate in the theft on the territory of the Russian Federation at the responsibility of their parent companies will be punished.”

According to state media reports, Belfast visited Google’s offices earlier this week to enforce court orders against the protest voting campaign.

Russian authorities have been pressuring Apple and Google for weeks to remove the Navalny team’s voting app. With Mr. Navalny’s websites blocked inside Russia, the app has become a stepping stone for the imprisoned politician’s exiled allies to continue to reach a wider audience. Almost every smartphone runs Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating system, making their app a key artery for the public to access any product.

The Russian Foreign Ministry last week summoned US Ambassador to Moscow John J. Sullivan and announced that “American” digital giants “had broken Russian law in the run-up to the election.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria V. Zakharova warned on Thursday that “the patience of the Russian side, which has so far refrained from interfering in US business in Russia, is not limited.”

The “Navalny” app is central to the protest voting strategy, which opposition leaders call “smart voting”. Elections in Russia are not free and fair, but the Kremlin still seeks to shine a popular legitimacy by holding elections in which a strong opposition party, usually from slow parties, distributes votes.

The Navy’s strategy, first deployed regionally in 2019, seeks to change this system of “organized democracy” against Mr Putin. The goal is for as many candidates as possible to represent the ruling United Russia party to choose the same challenger for all dissenting voters in each district – whether they agree with their views or not. The “Navalny” app coordinates this process, requests the user’s address and responds with the name of the candidate they should vote for.

The Navalny team said Friday it would try to get its “smart voting” names out in alternative ways, such as automated replies to the messaging app Telegram. But he was angry at Apple and Google for seemingly overcoming Kremlin pressure.

“This embarrassing day will go down in history,” Leonid Volkov, Mr Navalny’s longtime chief of staff, wrote on his telegram account.

Anton Trianovsky. Reported from Moscow, and Adam Stariano From London. Oleg Metsniev. And Ivan Naik Porenko. Assisted in reporting from Moscow.

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