As soon as the voting started For the lower house of the Russian parliament or the State Duma on Friday, Google and Apple quietly pulled out an anti-installation anti-voting app from their app stores. This is the latest in a series of concessions Apple has made to the Kremlin in particular – whose claims are likely to become even more aggressive from here on out.
As the tech industry can address complex human rights and security issues, the phenomenon underscores the uncomfortable compromise that many technology companies strike to operate in certain regions, as well as the increasingly ruthless demands of authoritarian governments.
The Russian government has pressured Apple and Google to shut down the voting app for weeks, threatening fines and even accusing companies of interfering in the election. Created by associates of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, it provides recommendations for candidates with the best shots to defeat the influential United Russia party in each district in each of Russia’s 225 polling stations. Voting is open on weekends, but the app is no longer available for download, and misleading fraudulent apps have already begun to pop up in its place.
According to the Associated Press, representatives of the two tech companies met with officials of the Council of the Russian Federation on Thursday, after which the council said in a statement that Apple would comply with the takedown demand. A source familiar with Google’s decision to remove the app said Russian authorities had threatened serious criminal charges and lawsuits against certain Google employees, forcing the company to intervene.
Apple did not respond to a request for comment from WIRED. Google declined to comment.
“Removing Navalny app from store is a shameful act of political censorship,” Tweeted Navalani’s associate Ivan Zhadanov on Friday. Jhadanavao Tweeted A predefined screenshot of an email from Apple to the makers of the voting app describing the anti-Navalny movement and its supporters as “extremist” and saying the app contains “content that is illegal in Russia.”
Apple has disabled its new iCloud private relay feature in Russia today, which prevents users’ IP addresses and browsing activity from being monitored by the public. The service is currently in beta, but Apple has never provided it in countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Belarus for “regulatory reasons.” It was, of course, introduced in Russia.
Russia’s move against the voting app is part of a larger trend. In April, iPhones and other iOS devices sold in Russia began to take an extra step in the setup process, asking users to install a list of apps from Russian developers. The apps are not pre-installed, and users can choose not to download them, but Apple has made the change as a waiver under Russian law.
And it’s not just Russia that is increasingly demanding restrictions. In addition to the Great Firewall, the Chinese government has long exercised significant control over how international technology companies operate in the country, requiring all foreign services to be owned by Chinese cloud companies and run on servers located in China. India has also forced international technology companies, including Twitter and Facebook, to enter into increasingly privacy-compromising agreements. But the removal of a voting guide app is such a turbulent political frontier that a worrying and dangerous new frontier.
In addition to iCloud, there has been a separate Apple controversy over a company’s plan to scan child sexual abuse material directly on users’ iPhones and iPads. Apple has now delayed the project after it delayed privacy, and security advocates argued that foreign governments could abuse such services in order to demand access to Apple customers’ data. The agency insisted it would not comply with any such claim.