Apple, Google remove opposition app as Russian vote begins – GV Wire



MOSCOW – Faced with pressure from the Kremlin, Apple and Google on Friday removed an opposition-created smartphone app that tells voters which candidates are likely to defeat those backed by Russian authorities, as polls opened for three polling days in parliamentary elections in Russia.

Unexpectedly long queues formed at some polling stations, and independent media suggested this could show state institutions and businesses forcing employees to vote. The election is widely seen as an important part of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to consolidate his grip on power ahead of the 2024 presidential elections, in which control of the State Duma, or parliament, will be key.

Apple and Google forced to remove smart voting app

Russian authorities have sought to suppress the use of smart voting, a strategy devised by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, to curb the dominance of the Kremlin-backed United Russia party.

Apple and Google have come under pressure in recent weeks, with Russian officials telling them to remove the Smart Voting app from their online stores. Failure to do so will be interpreted as interference with the elections and subject them to fines, officials said.

Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned US Ambassador John Sullivan on the matter.

Representatives from Apple and Google were invited to a meeting at the upper house of Russia’s parliament, the Federation Council, on Thursday. The Council’s commission on the protection of state sovereignty said in a statement that Apple has agreed to cooperate with Russian authorities.

Apple and Google did not respond to an Associated Press request for comment on Friday.

Google was forced to remove the app because it faced legal demands from regulators and threats of criminal prosecution in Russia, according to a person with direct knowledge of the case who also said that Russian police visited Google’s Moscow offices on Monday to enforce a court order to block the app. The person spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Russian authorities crack down on opposition

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday that the presidential administration “certainly welcomes, of course” the business decision, because enforcement was “outlawed” in Russia.

In recent months, authorities have unleashed a sweeping crackdown on Navalny’s allies and embarked on a massive effort to suppress smart voting.

Navalny is serving a 2.5-year prison sentence for parole violation following a previous conviction he says was politically motivated. Its main allies have been accused of criminal charges and many have left the country. The Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, along with a network of regional offices, have been banned as extremist organizations in a decision that exposes hundreds of people associated with them to prosecution.

About 50 websites managed by his team have been blocked and dozens of regional offices have been closed. The authorities have also decided to block the Smart Voting website, but some users can still access it. The Navalny team also created a Smart Voting chatbot on the Telegram messaging app and posted a list of Smart Voting approved candidates in Google Docs and on YouTube.

Navalny’s ally Ivan Zhdanov tweeted a screenshot of what appears to be an email from Apple on Friday, explaining why the app should be removed from the store. The screenshot cites the designation of extremism for the Anti-Corruption Foundation and allegations of electoral interference. “Google, Apple are making a big mistake,” Zhdanov wrote.

Concerns about forced voting

Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s top strategist, wrote on Facebook that the companies were “bowing to the Kremlin’s blackmail.” He noted that the move does not affect users who have already downloaded the app, and that it should work fine.

Volkov told the AP last month that at some point in August the app ranked third on Google Play in Russia among social media apps and fourth on the App Store in the same category.

Peskov called the smart vote on Friday “yet another attempt at provocations harmful to voters.”

Long lines at some polling stations in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities raised fears of a forced vote.

David Kankiya, of the independent election monitoring group Golos, told AP that it was easier for state institutions and businesses to force people to vote on Friday because there was less attention from officials. observers.

“Some observers are busy with work, others with university studies, because it is a working day and not a weekend,” he said. “Monitoring is more difficult to organize, ergo, there are fewer risks for the administrative machine.

Electoral legitimacy called into question by online voting and “carousel voting”

Peskov rejected the allegations and suggested that people at the polling stations were there voluntarily because they had to work weekends or wanted to “release” Saturday and Sunday.

Putin, who has been self-isolating since Tuesday after dozens of people around him were infected with COVID-19, voted online Friday – an option available in seven Russian regions this year. Kremlin critics have said this leaves room for manipulation.

Dr Anna Truchina, a radiologist at a Moscow hospital, told AP she went to a polling station “to be honest, because we were forced (to vote) because of my job. Frankly speaking. “

She added: “And I also want to know who is leading us.”

St. Petersburg media reported suspected cases of “carousel voting,” in which voters cast their ballots at several different polling stations. A PA video journalist saw the same voters, who are said to be students of military schools, at two different polling stations; one of them said that the group had initially taken the wrong polling station.

A member of the local election commission posted a video in which a man appeared to have attempted to vote several times and then was confronted by an election officer. The man in the video said he got his ballots at a subway station.

Apple and Google could avoid conflict with Russia

Although Google and Apple don’t report their income in Russia, there is a lot at stake there, said Ruben Enikolopov, professor of political economy at the New Economic School in Moscow.

“It’s a very important market, 140 million people,” he said. “Losing such a market for them is not at all negligible. It won’t really hurt their financial performance, but it is a big blow so they will put in a lot of effort not to lose.

The two companies could also try to avoid hardship for their Russia-based employees, Enikolopov said.

Western tech giants such as Twitter, Facebook and Google have come under pressure from the Russian government this year for their role in amplifying dissent. Authorities accused the platforms of failing to suppress calls to protest and imposed heavy fines on them.

Businesses face similar challenges elsewhere. In India, the government is at an impasse with Twitter, which it accuses of failing to comply with new internet regulations that digital activists say could restrict online speech and privacy.

Turkey passed a law last year that raised fears of censorship, giving authorities more power to regulate social media companies that were also required to create local legal entities – a request to which Facebook and Twitter responded. .

Twitter has been banned in Nigeria since June, when the company deleted a controversial tweet from the country’s president, although the government promised to lift it soon.

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