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Apple and Google cave to Putin’s censors, block Navalny app as election begins


At an Anti-Putin protest in Berlin, a giant sculpture depicts Alexei Navalny kicking Vladimir Putin in the groin.
Enlarge / A sculpture of Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny in front of the Brandenburg Gate at an anti-Putin demonstration on May 9, 2021 in Berlin, Germany.

Getty Images | Adam Berry

Apple and Google gave a boost to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party by removing a strategic voting app developed by activists who support the jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The app, called “Navalny,” was kicked off the mobile app stores ahead of this weekend’s legislative election as Apple and Google caved to pressure from the Russian government.

“Removing the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship. Russia’s authoritarian government and propaganda will be thrilled,” Ivan Zhdanov, who is director of the Navalny-founded Anti-Corruption Foundation and a politician in the Russia of the Future opposition party, wrote on Twitter. While candidates associated with Navalny are banned from the election, the Navalny app was designed to help voters coalesce around opposition candidates who are on the ballot.

As noted by NBC News, the now-removed “tactical voting app allows voters who do not want President [Vladimir] Putin’s ruling political party, United Russia, to win the election to organize around a single opposition candidate in each of the 225 electoral districts in an effort to boost the number of non-Kremlin-approved politicians in power.” Since mid-August, the Russian government has “threatened Apple and Google with fines if they didn’t remove Navalny’s tactical voting app from the App Store and Google Play store,” NBC News wrote.

Russia stepped up its pressure on the companies as the election drew nearer. “Google removed the app Friday morning after the Russian authorities issued a direct threat of criminal prosecution against the company’s staff in the country, naming specific individuals, according to a person familiar with the company’s decision,” The New York Times wrote. “The move comes one day after a Russian lawmaker raised the prospect of retribution against employees of the two technology companies, saying they would be punished.'”

In an apparently related move today, “Apple also disabled its Private Relay feature in Russia,” The Washington Post reported. “The feature conceals the user’s IP address and browsing data, offering protection against government surveillance online.” The feature was available in beta.

The Navalny app was removed just as voting began in the three-day election that runs from Friday to Sunday. Navalny’s team is apparently considering legal action against Apple and Google. We contacted Apple and Google about the app removal today and will update this article if we get any response.

Apple obeys government demands

Apple’s capitulation to the Russian government is likely concerning to anyone who opposes the company’s plan to have iPhones and other Apple devices scan user photos for child-sexual-abuse material (CSAM) before they’re uploaded to iCloud. Apple claimed it will refuse government demands to expand photo-scanning beyond CSAM. But Apple’s removal of the election app, when considered alongside previous concessions the company made to Russia and China, is a reminder that Apple has to comply with laws in the countries it operates in or risk losing access to those markets.

Apple has said it operates in countries where it disagrees with the laws in order to “remain engaged.” Apple’s “Commitment to Human Rights” document says, “We believe in the critical importance of an open society in which information flows freely, and we’re convinced the best way we can continue to promote openness is to remain engaged, even where we may disagree with a country’s laws,” NBC News reporter Olivia Solon pointed out today.

Apple initially said it would roll out the photo-scanning in the US this year and bring it to other countries later. More than 90 policy groups from the US and around the world urged Apple to drop the plan, predicting that governments will demand that Apple “scan photos not just for CSAM, but also for other images a government finds objectionable. Those images may be of human rights abuses, political protests, images companies have tagged as ‘terrorist’ or violent extremist content, or even unflattering images of the very politicians who will pressure the company to scan for them.” Implementing the photo-scanning system would lay a “foundation for censorship, surveillance and persecution on a global basis,” the groups said.

Amid the backlash, Apple said on September 3 that it will “take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”

Voting app content “illegal in Russia”

Zhdanov posted a screenshot of Apple’s message informing Navalny app developers that the election app was removed. Apple said the Russian government’s censorship agency determined that the app “includes content that is illegal in Russia, which is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.” The message from Apple said:

Apps must comply with all legal requirements in any location where you make them available (if you’re not sure, check with a lawyer). We know this stuff is complicated, but it is your responsibility to understand and make sure your app conforms with all local laws, not just the guidelines below. And of course, apps that solicit, promote, or encourage criminal or clearly reckless behavior will be rejected.

We note that the Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation and the Prosecutor’s Office of the City of Moscow have also determined that the app violates the legislation of the Russian Federation by enabling interference in elections.

While your app has been removed from the Russia App Store, it is still available in the App Stores for the other territories you selected in App Store Connect. The TestFlight version of this app will also be unavailable for external and internal testing in Russia and all public TestFlight links will no longer be functional.

Russia banned groups it labeled “extremist”

Apple’s message to the app developers included the request Apple received from the Russian government agency Roskomnadzor, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media. Roskomnadzor told Apple that the Anti-Corruption Fund and Navalny’s “public movement” are “recognized as extremist within the country.”

“In accordance with Article 9 of the Federal Law of 25.07.2002 No. 114-FZ, ‘On Countering Extremist Activity,’ by the decision of the Moscow City Court dated 09.06.2021, these non-profit organizations were liquidated, and the activities of the public movement were prohibited,” Roskomnadzor told Apple. “At the moment, the Navalny application is being distributed through the App Store service, which is used to promote the activities and implement the activities of the aforementioned extremist organizations.”

With Navalny in prison and Russian authorities having prevented his backers and other opposition figures from getting on the ballot, the app was designed to help voters identify non-ruling party candidates.

“The idea, which Mr. Navalny calls smart voting, is to coalesce opposition-minded voters around one particular candidate running against United Russia in each of the country’s 225 electoral districts,” The New York Times wrote earlier this week. “That candidate could be a liberal, a nationalist or a Stalinist. Before Russians go to the polls, they can punch their address into the ‘Navalny’ smartphone app, which then responds with the names of the candidates they should vote for—whether or not voters agree with those persons’ views.”

As the BBC noted today, Putin’s United Russia Party is expected to win the election. “Although a total of 14 parties are taking part in the vote, many candidates seen as anti-Putin are barred from running, including anyone associated with Navalny’s opposition movement. Some prominent Kremlin opponents have been forced to leave Russia,” the BBC wrote.

“Even in Russia, voting is not criminal behavior”

Tech Legal Counsel Natalia Krapiva of digital-rights advocacy group Access Now wrote on Twitter that the app “helped Russians that disagree with Putin find candidates to vote for” and is the “very definition of democratic process.”

“For once, Putin was afraid too… Russia has tried everything to get the app pulled. A spurious trademark lawsuit, legal threats. @Google and @Apple knew exactly what was going on. And, until this morning, they resisted,” Krapiva wrote.

“Worse: after pulling the real voting guide app, @Apple is keeping impostor apps,” she added. “Russians headed to the polls are now unwittingly installing apps that may put them in immediate danger.”

Krapiva pointed out that Apple’s correspondence to the app developers warned them that apps must not promote “criminal” behavior. “@Apple, I can’t believe I need to say this but even in Russia, voting is not criminal behavior,” Krapiva wrote. Apple and Google “owe the Russian people an explanation,” she wrote.





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