The disappearance of the Navalny app shows the strength of Russia in the battle against big tech


When Apple and Google removed an election app created by jailed Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny from their online stores just as the country’s three-day parliamentary vote began, his associates were dismayed – and criticized the US tech giants for giving in to the Kremlin’s demands.

However, there was little that Navalny’s allies could do about it. And developments have shown that in the battle between trillion-dollar tech companies and authoritarian rulers of major economies – especially those willing to resort to extra-legal means – the latter may have a stronger position, according to the experts. analysts.

Russia has reportedly raised the possibility of criminal charges against local employees of tech giants. Given that critics say President Vladimir Putin’s government is using trumped-up accusations to dismiss opponents like Navalny, this would be a prospect that would be hard to take lightly.

“I don’t think they have a lot of choice,” Adam Segal, director of the Digital and Cyberspace Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, told RFE / RL. “Unless they’re willing to leave the Russian market – which I don’t think they are – I don’t think they have much influence on their own.”

Either way, internet freedom advocates say businesses need to fight as hard as they can because authoritarian regimes around the world are monitoring what is happening in places like Russia.

“While companies are understandably concerned about their staff in the country, they also have a responsibility to respect rights,” wrote Deborah Brown, senior researcher and digital rights advocate at Human Rights Watch, in a report. item published September 21.

“We certainly don’t want tech companies to capitulate in these cases and this decision [by Apple and Google] is concerning, ”Grant Baker, associate researcher on technology and democracy at Freedom House, Washington, told RFE / RL.

However, Baker says companies are in a “difficult position” as they must ensure the safety of their employees while trying to fulfill their obligation to respect free speech.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny

And Segal said that due to the division in the United States over the role of big tech, companies might not receive the vocal support they might have had in the past during clashes with authoritarian regimes. “Pushback from the US government … is pretty unlikely these days,” he said.

Neither Apple nor Google immediately responded to emails and phone calls from RFE / RL seeking comment.

Contacted by RFE / RL, the US State Department declined to comment on the tech giants’ decision, limiting itself to saying that everyone has the right to speak out freely and that corporations “are strengthened, not threatened, by the expression of opinions and dissent, including via the Internet. “

“Extremist groups”

For weeks before the Sept. 17-19 vote for the State Duma, the lower house of Russia’s parliament and a key lever of power for Putin, Moscow had pressured U.S. companies to remove the app to on the grounds that it was promoting the activities of an extremist. organization banned in Russia.

In June, Russia declared the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation and other organizations it had founded “extremist” groups, banning them in what human rights activists called a baseless attempt and politically motivated to destroy its national network and blunt his challenge before the elections.

With his own political movement emptied by the state, Navalny called on his supporters to vote for candidates running against the ruling United Russia party. The Smart Voting app informed citizens which candidate in a particular district had the best chance of defeating the Kremlin favorite.

The aim was to crop, race by race, United Russia’s chances of retaining its two-thirds majority in the Duma, which the party needs to pass constitutional amendments without the support of other deputies in the 450-seat chamber.

WATCH: How Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ Works

The two tech giants defied Russian demand until election day one. They may have caved in when Russia reportedly raised the possibility of opening criminal charges against local staff.

The New York Times reported that Russian authorities have named specific people at Google who would face prosecution if the app was not taken down, citing someone they did not name but who knew about it. of the tech company’s decision. The AFP news agency quoted an unidentified source who it said was familiar with Apple’s situation, saying its employees were facing “threats of arrest.”

Vladimir Dzhabarov, a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament who is also an officer of the Federal Security Service, Russia’s main internal security agency, claimed the day before the start of the vote that Apple and Google were committing “specific crimes” and that individuals “contributing to the fraud of their parent companies” to Russian law “will be punished. “

Analysts say Russia has several factors in its favor in its fight against social media and tech companies: the size and purchasing power of its population, a competitive domestic tech industry, and disagreements within and among them. democracies on how to regulate the industry.

Russia is the ninth largest country in the world in terms of population and the 11th in terms of economic output. In addition, its citizens are active internet users, with 87 million Russians surfing the web every day.

This makes the country an important market for US tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

Russia is the fifth largest market for Facebook’s photo-sharing application, Instagram.

At the same time, Russia has tightened the screws on the internet and social media in particular over the past decade, as more citizens turn to online news sources, loosening control of the Kremlin. on the dissemination of information.

In July, Putin signed a bill requiring foreign tech companies with more than 500,000 Russian users to establish a representative office in Russia, a move that may seem benign but would give authorities the option to hold employees of local companies responsible for decisions made by government. do not like.

“If you have a representative office, the pressure is already there,” Baker said.

Russia is by no means the only one, or even the first, to take this step. Turkey, Indonesia and India – whose governments, like Russia’s, have all become more authoritarian in recent years – have passed legislation requiring tech companies to have local representative offices.

Brown of Human Rights Watch wrote that “the wave of ‘hostage-taking’ laws passed in several countries that require companies to appoint representatives in the country may mean that a wave of corporate-assisted censorship. is on the horizon ”.

India, the world’s largest untapped tech market, threatened earlier this year with jail local Twitter executives if they refused to follow government orders to remove content, it was considered dangerous.

In a striking sign of the economic consideration that can come into play when it comes to controlling government over the internet, a Facebook executive in India last year sought to block efforts applying the social media company’s hate speech rules to some Hindu politicians and nationalist groups for fear it would hurt their business prospects in the country.

Whether America’s tech giants give in to government demands “usually depends on the size of the market and the willingness of companies to stand up and perhaps threaten to leave,” Segal said.

Another key element in the decision-making process is the country’s dependence on its technology platforms, he said.

Here, Russia has an advantage over countries like Turkey, India and Indonesia. Russian social media, e-commerce and research companies compete at home with the US giants, giving the Kremlin more leverage.

“Sovereign Internet”

And that advantage could grow as Putin’s government throws in money to develop its domestic industry, like RuTube, the country’s response to Google’s YouTube, the platform Navalny successfully uses to broadcast its presentations on corruption. at the highest levels of the Russian government.

Andrei Soldatov, a Russian tech journalist, says global platforms like YouTube are becoming replaceable, undermining their strength in their battle against the Kremlin.

“You could have billions of users, but if the local government decides to attack your business, very few of them will do anything about it,” Soldatov said in a statement. opinion piece in The Moscow Times on September 20.

The international debate over how to regulate social media companies and the deep divisions over the issue in the United States are serving as a tailwind for Russia in its fight against the tech giants, analysts said.

“Liberal democracies are having debates these days about what kind of material they keep, what types of material they remove, what is legal, what is illegal,” Segal said, adding that Russia can choose to defend their actions.

NATO member Turkey has been aggressive in its attempts to censor social media. Ankara accounted for 27% of all legal requests for content removal or retention on Twitter, overtaking Russia at 20%, according to data posted on the tech company’s website.

India, sometimes referred to as the world’s largest democracy, represents 6 percent of all legal requests made to Twitter when the United States represents less than 1%.

Baker said what he called the US government’s “laissez-faire” approach to regulating technology over the years has enabled other countries – both democracies and authoritarian states – to emerge. offer their own models. He thinks Washington should play a more active role in building a regulatory framework.

“Democratic countries must take the lead in this area,” he said, adding that creating a transparent regulatory framework for tech companies would not stop all violations by governments, but “it does would probably contribute to a more secure and open Internet “.

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