Earlier this month, when the Kremlin told a number of major technology companies to suppress political opposition amid Russia’s national elections, their answer was unequivocal: no. Yet just two weeks later, Apple and Google deleted the Smart Voting app, opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his party’s main tool for consolidating votes against the Vladimir Putin regime from their app stores. At the time, Telegram and Google’s ownership of YouTube also restricted access to opposition candidates’ recommendations that Navalny shared on those platforms. Of course, Putin was ecstatic.
The sudden bending of the knee on American technology platforms has not only damaged the opposition’s ability to communicate with the Russian people. He also noted the dangerous effectiveness of the Kremlin’s new policy: Force foreign technology companies to put employees on the ground so that they are forced and threatened to carry out Kremlin orders. Despite everything that world politicians and analysts discuss censorship of the Internet in technical terms, this episode is a strong reminder that the old-fashioned force can decisively tighten the state in the network.
The Putin regime has long relied on beatings for repression, from beatings of protesters and a failed assassination attempt on Navalny to imprisonment as he was still recovering from his poisoning. So it is not surprising that once Navali’s prison provokes mass national protests, the Kremlin will try to control every possible election risk, including through heavily armed American technology companies.
One of Putin’s biggest goals was Navalny’s smart voting project, which has been successful over the past few years in disseminating candidates’ recommendations to interested voters to occupy parliamentary seats in Putin’s ruling party, United Russia. Hence the absurd request of the Russian Internet regulator for American technology platforms to censor intelligent voting. Russian mobile network providers were able to completely block Russia’s access to Google Documents simply because Navalny’s team had published a document listing United Russia’s contenders. But when Apple and Google opposed deleting the opposition’s application, the regime went 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 would say that this is to ensure compliance with Russian national security laws, but in reality it is a matter of forcing organs on the spot. Not every platform has yet created a store (Twitter remains on hold), but Apple and Google have done so. So when they do not comply with censorship requirements, the Kremlin sends gunmen to sit in Google’s Moscow offices for hours. The Russian parliament also called representatives from both Google and Apple’s offices to a session on the Navalny application, where they were belittled and threatened. The government has reportedly named specific Google employees it will pursue if the company does not delete the app, and the same is likely to apply to Apple.
Poof, the next morning both companies folded and removed Smart Voting from their app stores. Apple has given way, disabling Private Relay in Russia, a feature designed to ensure that when browsing the Internet with Safari, no one can see either the user’s identity or what they are watching. This has undoubtedly strengthened the ability of the Russian Federal Security Service (now stable) to spy on online trafficking in citizens. YouTube, widely used in Russia by the opposition, then removed a video in which Navalny’s camp listed the names of leading opposition candidates and Telegram blocked access to Navalny’s election services.
The debate reveals the misguided decade of American rhetoric about “Internet freedom,” which holds that Western technology companies operating in authoritarian states will lead to democracy. During the Arab Spring, for example, many American experts ignored the importance of local blogs and citizens organizing to mark movements as a “Twitter revolution.” A 2010 speech by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton examined the ways in which authoritarian regimes use the Internet to their advantage, but still reflected the prevailing view that more Western technology in dictatorships would promote “freedom.” Another piece of information shows the opposite, that the physical presence of these companies in Russia makes them vulnerable to Putin’s will.