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Apple and Google have removed a tactical voting app made by supporters of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny from their online stores following strong pressure from the Kremlin, as voting began in the country’s parliamentary elections.
Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store blocked further downloads of the app in Russia on Friday morning after “multiple legal demands, not requests” from the country’s communications regulator and law enforcement, according to a person close to the situation.
The move is the biggest concession yet by western tech companies to the Kremlin’s increasingly stringent demands for censorship of online content. President Vladimir Putin has said the internet could make society “collapse from the inside” if it does not “submit to formal legal rules and the moral laws of society”.
The person close to the situation also said Google employees had received public and private threats of criminal prosecution if the company did not comply with the Kremlin request to remove the app from the store and search engines.
They said armed men, thought by staff to be police officers, spent several hours in Google’s Moscow offices on Monday. Russia’s bailiff service said on Tuesday its officers had visited to demand the company comply with a Moscow court ruling to remove the app from search results.
The person believed threats to staff of this nature were unprecedented, saying it had “never got this bad before.”
Apple and Google both declined to comment on Friday.
Leonid Volkov, chief of staff to Navalny, said the US tech companies had “caved to the Kremlin’s blackmail” after the app — which is designed to encourage tactical voting against Putin’s United Russia party — disappeared from the App Store and the Google Play Store.
“This is a crucial moment for Russia. It looks like big tech companies are starting to co-operate even more closely with the authorities’ repression,” said Alena Epifanova, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
Apple justified the decision under a Moscow court ruling in June that declared Navalny’s foundation an “extremist organisation”, according to a screenshot posted by Ivan Zhdanov, the opposition group’s former director.
The anti-corruption activist was arrested in January when he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had been treated for a nerve agent poisoning he accuses Putin of ordering.
After Navalny’s supporters organised protests in dozens of cities nationwide, Russia responded with an unprecedented crackdown on dissent that forced most of his top allies into exile.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters the Kremlin welcomed the technology groups’ decision. “This app is illegal on the territory of our country,” Peskov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
The move indicated the Kremlin’s determination to clear the internet of dissent ahead of the country’s three-day vote, which United Russia is expected to win easily despite rising discontent about slumping living standards.
Putin has made bringing the internet to heel a priority, according to a person close to the Kremlin.
“Imagine if it was the other way around and [a Russian platform] had 30 per cent of the US search market? These platforms are global and politics is national. So you either have to make them comply with the law, or ban them,” they said.
With dozens of Navalny’s allies struck from the ballot, his team is urging supporters to vote for Kremlin-approved “loyal opposition” candidates recommended by the app. Peskov said the tactic was “provocative” and would “harm voters.”
Russia has accused Silicon Valley companies of meddling in the vote by refusing to scrub all mention of Navalny’s app from the internet.
At a hearing on Thursday lawmakers then threatened Apple and Google’s local staff with criminal prosecution if they failed to comply, as well as fines ranging between 5 per cent and 20 per cent of the companies’ local revenue.