as voting begins On Friday for Russia’s lower house of parliament, or the State Duma, Google and Apple quietly pulled a beleaguered anti-establishment voting app from their App Stores. It is the latest in a series of concessions notably given to the Kremlin – demands whose demands are only likely to get more aggressive from here on out.
As the tech industry grapples with how to address a host of complex human rights and security issues, the incident has underscored the uneasy agreement that many tech companies strike to work in certain sectors, as well as the tyranny of authoritarian governments. Even to the increasing brazen demands.
The Russian government had pressured Apple and Google for weeks to remove the voting app, impose fines and even accuse companies of illegal election interference. Created by allies of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, it offered recommendations in each of Russia’s 225 voting districts for the candidates with the best shot at defeating the dominant United Russia party in each race. Voting is open through the weekend, but the app is no longer available for download and deceptive fraudulent apps have already started popping up in its place.
Representatives of two tech companies met with officials of the Council of the Russian Federation on Thursday The Associated Press, after which the council said in a statement that Apple would comply with the takedown demand. A person with knowledge of Google’s decision to remove the app said Russian officials threatened specific Google employees with serious criminal charges and prosecution, forcing the company’s hand.
Apple did not respond to Nerdshala’s request for comment. Google declined to comment.
“The removal of Navalny App from the Store is a shameful act of political censorship,” tweeted Navalny’s colleague Ivan Zhdanov on Friday. Zhdanov too tweeted An alleged screenshot of an email from Apple to the creators of the voting app that described Navalny’s opposition movement and its supporters as “extremist” and that the app “contains illegal content in Russia.”
apple too allegedly incapacitated Russia today has its new iCloud Private Relay feature, which masks users’ IP addresses and browsing activity to combat mass surveillance. Currently available in beta, Apple never offered the service for “regulatory reasons” in countries such as China, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Belarus, but did launch it in Russia.
Russia’s action against the voting app is part of a larger trend. In April, iPhones and other iOS devices sold in Russia began to come with an additional step in the setup process that prompts users to install a list of apps from Russian developers. The apps aren’t pre-installed and users can choose not to download them, but Apple has made changes to Russian law as a concession.
And it is not just Russia that is making increasingly restrictive demands. With its Great Firewall, the Chinese government has long exercised significant control over how international tech companies operate in the country, including a requirement that all foreign services run on servers that are owned by Chinese cloud companies. and are located in China. India has also increasingly forced international tech companies including Twitter and Facebook enter into a confidentiality-abolition agreement. But something so baldly political as the removal of a voting guide app is a dangerous and dangerous new frontier.
The episode also comes on the heels of a separate Apple controversy over the company’s plan to scan child sex abuse material directly onto users’ iPhones and iPads in addition to iCloud. Apple has now delayed the project after privacy and security advocates argued that such a service could be misused by foreign governments seeking to access customer data by Apple. The company had firmly stated that it would not comply with any such demand.
“Companies like Apple and Google cannot claim they will not submit government requests when they have a clear history of doing so,” says Johns Hopkins cryptographer Matthew Green.
The human rights implications of the actions of tech companies resonate around the world. But there are some easy answers about how to proceed in dealing with authoritarian regimes. And it seems unlikely that international companies will withdraw from established markets in the face of restrictive laws.
The human rights implications are more nuanced than previously thought, says Isabel Linger, a research analyst at US-based digital rights and democracy group Freedom House. Given that authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Iran are focusing on creating total state Internet control and even launching their own apps and app stores, mobile devices and operating systems created by international tech companies There are still security and privacy benefits in the hands of. local user. For example, limited editions of Google Play and the App Store also give people some access to international apps, and offer standby end-to-end encryption like iMessage. And in the case of the opposition voting app, the fact that Android is the dominant mobile operating system in Russia means users can still potentially download it from third-party app stores.
Linger also noted that the takedown is a brazen act of censorship that could set a dangerous precedent, something Apple and Google achieved by defying requests from the Russian government until voting had already begun and Many people had already downloaded it.
“There will continue to be efforts to resist these demands and some of us should support, even if they eventually agree with the demand at times,” Linger says. “So it’s important to keep this pressure on tech companies to protect free expression. Authoritarian governments around the world are watching what’s going on. And we need to make sure this precedent is not accepted.” “
Resistance to Russian removal orders from Apple and Google bought time for the Navalny app to spread before the election. But companies eventually agreed, which ultimately doesn’t bode well for the other demands that are inevitably to come.
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