Earlier this month, When the Kremlin called on multiple Big Tech companies to suppress political opposition in Russia’s nationwide election, their answer was unequivocal: no. Yet just two weeks later, Apple and Google removed the Smart Voting app from their App Store, the primary tool for consolidating votes against the rule of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his party, Vladimir Putin. Telegram and Google-owned YouTube then restricted access to the recommendations of opposition candidates that Navalny was sharing on these platforms. Putin was certainly overwhelmed.
The sudden knee-jerk reaction of the US technology platform has not only hurt the opposition’s ability to communicate with the Russian people. This marks the dangerous effectiveness of a new Kremlin policy: forcing foreign technology companies to put workers on the ground, forcing them to bid on the Kremlin and threatening them. For the world’s politicians and analysts discussing Internet censorship in terms of technology, this episode is a powerful reminder that the power of the old days can firmly establish a state on the web.
Putin’s regime has long relied on thugs for persecution, ranging from beating protesters and attempting to assassinate Navalny to being imprisoned because he was still recovering from poisoning. So it is not surprising that after Navalny’s imprisonment there were widespread protests across the country that the Kremlin would try to control potential electoral risks, including with powerful armed US technology companies.
One of Putin’s biggest targets is Navalny’s smart voting project, which over the past few years has succeeded in campaigning for interested voters to recommend candidates to remove parliamentary seats from Russia’s ruling United Russia. The Russian Internet regulator therefore unreasonably claims that American technology platforms will censor smart voting. Russian mobile network providers were able to block Russia’s full access to Google Docs, as Navalny’s team United Russia listed a dock of challengers. But when Apple and Google protested the removal of the opposition’s app, the regime turned from code to muscle.
In July, Putin signed a law requiring foreign IT companies operating in the Russian market to open offices in the country. The Kremlin will say it is to ensure compliance with Russia’s national security law, but it is to get the bodies on the ground. Not every platform has set up a store yet (Twitter remains a holdout), but Apple and Google have. So when they did not comply with the censorship demands, the Kremlin sent armed men to sit for hours at Google’s Moscow office. The Russian parliament summoned representatives of both Google and Apple to a session on the Navalny app, where they were beaten and threatened. The government has complained that certain Google employees have been named if the company does not delete the app and they similarly favor Apple.
And, disguised, the next morning, both companies folded and removed smart voting from their App Store. Apple has further acknowledged that by disabling private relays in Russia, an entity cannot see both the user’s identity and what they are viewing when browsing the Internet with Safari. This has undoubtedly strengthened the ability of the Russian Federal Security Service (SPS) to spy on citizens’ online traffic. YouTube, widely used by the opposition in Russia, then removed a video where Navalny’s camp listed the names of the leading opposition candidates and Telegram blocked access to Navalny’s electoral services.
The defeat reveals the confusion of decades of American “Internet freedom” rhetoric that pushes the view that Western technology companies operating in authoritarian states will lead to democracy. During the Arab Spring, for example, many American scholars identified the movements as the “Twitter Revolution”, ignoring the importance of local blogs and civic organizations. A speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010 addressed the way authoritarian regimes are using the Internet to their advantage but still reflects the prevailing view that more Western technology will promote “independence” in dictatorships. On the other hand, on the other hand, these companies had a physical presence in Russia which weakened their will to Putin.