Home > News > The Kremlin forced U.S. tech firms to shut down an app some Russian voters hoped to use. Now what?
178 views 9 min 0 Comment

The Kremlin forced U.S. tech firms to shut down an app some Russian voters hoped to use. Now what?

More authoritarian leaders could use “election interference” complaints to rein in Internet freedom

- September 30, 2021

This month, as voting began in Russia’s parliamentary election, technology giants Google (owned by Alphabet) and Apple bowed to Kremlin pressure. They removed Smart Voting, a tactical voting app created by the associates of opposition leader Alexei Navalny from their app stores for users in Russia.

The decision by Google and Apple exposes the dilemma facing powerful Internet and tech companies with global reach. They try to abide by national laws in the countries where they operate to grow their market share and user bases. But this may mean that they fall short on protection of user rights and freedoms, especially in illiberal regimes. The concentration of power in just a few platform companies means a decision to comply with or resist government pressure can have global implications.

What happened to Smart Voting?

Associates of jailed Kremlin critic Navalny developed Smart Voting to help Russian voters choose the candidate most likely to defeat the ruling United Russia party opponent in each polling district. After voters entered their address, the app recommended a candidate estimated to win in their district. The goal was to maximize electoral victories for alternative candidates in Russia’s elections, by avoiding splitting opposition support among multiple candidates.

Russia’s latest crackdown on dissent is much more sweeping than ever before

The Russian government blocked Smart Voting’s website after a Moscow court banned Navalny’s organization this year as “extremist.” Russian Internet regulator Roskomnadzor demanded that Apple and Google remove the Smart Voting application from their app stores in Russia because of the app’s links to Navalny’s organization.

Both companies had previously ignored censorship attempts. This time, after threats of hefty fines and possible criminal prosecution for Russia-based staff, they complied. Later, Google also restricted access to YouTube videos and Google Doc files containing the names of candidates recommended by the Smart Voting project.

Neither company made any initial formal public statement. In a letter to the Smart Voting creators, Apple said that apps shared through App Store must comply with “all legal requirements in any location where you make them available” and noted that “apps that solicit, promote or encourage criminal or clearly reckless behavior” were not allowed. Tactical voting, apparently, falls under this description.

Russia accused the tech companies of ‘election interference’

The Kremlin framed the Internet platforms’ reluctance to take down opposition-friendly materials as “election interference,” echoing concerns about voter manipulation in the 2016 U.S. elections. Russia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry called in the U.S. ambassador to complain about “Western” meddling. Russian senators chastised Google and Apple representatives in a pre-election meeting of the Special Committee of the Federation Council devoted to Russian sovereignty.

Such accusations might appear in line with the global spotlight on tech companies and their influence in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections. But human rights advocates denounced the removal of the app as a violation of voters’ civic and political rights. David Kaye, former U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, questioned whether the companies had performed their human rights due diligence.

The Kremlin has a new toolkit for shutting down independent news media

Google and Apple’s move also put pressure on other tech companies. Pavel Durov, the liberal-minded founder of the popular messenger app Telegram, announced Sept. 17 that Telegram would block election information bots — automated services providing candidate information upon request — including the Smart Voting bot that functions similarly to the app, during Russia’s three-day election. He implied that he worried that Telegram might be removed from app stores in Russia, perhaps affecting its availability in other markets. Between 2018 and 2020, Telegram had successfully fought off attempts by Russian censors to block the app for not removing terrorist and extremist materials in Russia, though the ban was lifted in 2020. Now, however, Telegram appeared to give in.

Google and Apple’s compliance sets an important precedent

The Russian government will certainly push for increased compliance now that it knows that such pressure works. Russia regularly uses the language of international law to justify repressive moves, even when these actions violate the very norms that Russian laws are modeled on. Other autocrats are likely to emulate Russia’s tactics, just as Russia has learned from other authoritarian regimes about what experts call “hostage-taking laws.” By requiring Internet companies to have in-country representatives and store user data locally, the government makes sure these platforms become more susceptible to official pressure.

Can technology companies push back and, potentially, protect human rights? Apple prides itself on being transparent and protecting user privacy, while Google has committed to the Global Network Initiative’s Principles on Freedom of Expression and Privacy. But in Russia, their recent decision to pull the Smart Voting app would seem to conflict with these commitments.

For example, the GNI Principles build on the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and specifically address how companies should operate in “difficult jurisdictions.” The guidelines call for companies to “honor the principles of internationally recognized human rights to the greatest extent possible” to minimize “adverse impact” and “be able to demonstrate their efforts in this regard.”

Don’t miss any of TMC’s smart analysis! Sign up for our newsletter.

How governments misuse ‘security concerns’

The Smart Voting case also illustrates how governments can use cybersecurity and national security concerns to mask self-interested interventions as they seek to control platform power. They can enable and justify far-reaching central control and limitations on user rights. For instance, governments can cite the provision of encryption and censorship circumvention tools to citizens as “interference” in domestic affairs — or even attempted regime change.

More broadly, these cases reinforce a global trend toward establishing government sovereignty over the digital sphere, thus undermining the global principles of the open Internet that are key to protecting human rights. This raises further questions about the power that tech platforms wield, and whether and how to hold them accountable if they don’t adhere to universal human rights norms.

What happened in Russia also points to the dilemma that these companies face. If powerful Internet companies leave the Russian market, this would undoubtedly disadvantage Russian users in terms of access to information and freedom of expression. But if they stay and consent to government censorship rules, they further undermine user safety, public trust and, ultimately, their global reputation.

Professors: Check out TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides

Tetyana Lokot (@tanyalokot) is an associate professor at the School of Communications, Dublin City University.

Mariëlle Wijermars (@Marielle_W_) is an assistant professor in cybersecurity and politics at Maastricht University.