Putin critic Navalny criticizes Google and Apple for accepting Kremlin censorship

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MOSCOW – Russia’s best-known opposition figure Alexey Navalny has slammed Google and Apple for complying with Kremlin censorship demands in recent parliamentary elections, accusing tech giants of ‘cowardice’ and to have become “accomplices” in President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to suppress political opposition.

Both companies have bowed to pressure from the Russian government to remove content relating to a tactical voting campaign promoted by Navalny in last weekend’s election which saw Russia’s ruling party, pro-Putin, retain its majority. amid accusations of widespread ballot rigging and crackdown on anti-Kremlin opposition.

“If anything surprised me in the last election, it’s not how Putin forged the results, but how the almighty Big Tech became his accomplices,” he added. said on Twitter on Thursday – a message written from prison and published by colleagues.

Navalny’s campaign, called Smart Voting, called on people to vote for any candidate with the best chance of defeating the ruling United Russia party. The online content contained lists of registered candidates recommended by the Navalny team.

Google and Apple have removed smart voting apps from their stores in Russia, and Google has blocked two related videos on YouTube.

The deletions are the biggest concession tech companies have made to the Kremlin’s demands to restrict content and it has raised concerns among liberal Russians that this is an important step towards corporate acceptance of a wider censorship in the country.

Russian authorities banned Navalny’s movement earlier this year, after jailing the anti-corruption and pro-democracy activist who survived a nerve agent poisoning in 2020. In June, the government appointed the Anti-Corruption Foundation -corruption of Navalny and its regional political offices as “extremist organizations, equating them with violent terrorist groups and demanding social media platforms to ban their content.

The designation has been widely condemned internationally, including by the United States, as politically motivated.

Neither Google nor Apple have made a public statement on the app removals, and each declined to comment on ABC News. In an email explaining the decision to the Anti-Corruption Foundation, posted online by the Navalny team, Apple said it was obligated to follow local laws and cited claims by Russian prosecutors that the application permitted “electoral interference”.

Navalny accused the companies of allowing themselves to be used as instruments of the Kremlin to block legitimate peaceful opposition efforts, saying they feared losing access to Russia’s market and calling them “hypocrites.” to present themselves as companies driven by values ​​such as improving the world. Google used the motto “Don’t be evil” as the corporate motto.

“In our case, the very intention to organize voters to exert competitive pressure on the ruling party was declared criminal, and Big Tech agreed with that,” Navalny wrote.

He also called on employees within companies to raise the issue, writing: “I know most of those who work at Google, Apple, etc. are honest and good people. I urge them not to put up with the cowardice of their bosses. . “

In the past, Google and Apple have largely resisted Russian government requests to remove content critical of authorities, racking up fines imposed by Russian state censorship. But recently the Kremlin has stepped up pressure on US tech companies as part of a broader crackdown on dissent.

The day before Apple and Google each removed the voting app, the companies had to appear before a Russian Senate committee. Andrey Klimov, a prominent senator who heads a commission – Protection of State Sovereignty and Prevention of Interference in the Internal Affairs of the Country – accused them of unlawful interference in the elections and threatened to penalize them with a new legislation.

A few days earlier, judicial officers visited Google’s Moscow offices, demanding that the company pay the unpaid fines imposed by state censorship. The New York Times reported that Google made the decision to remove Navalny’s app after authorities threatened to arrest local employees at Google’s Moscow office.

Security experts have said they fear the Kremlin is increasingly determined to tame foreign tech giants as it tightens its grip on the Russian internet. The government has blocked a growing number of sites and is developing infrastructure to enable it to cut off Russia’s access to the global web, if deemed necessary. This year, it started slowing down Twitter after the company refused to remove content.

Andrey Soldatov, author of “Red Web”, which examines the Russian government’s efforts to control the Internet, said last week’s concession would likely not discourage the Kremlin from relying more on Google and Apple. He said the government was increasingly confident in its technical capabilities to block major international platforms.

“To be honest,” he told ABC News by phone, “things are looking really, really dark right now.”

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