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New Atlanticist September 17, 2021

How Russia made Apple and Google complicit in its internet crackdown

By Dylan Myles-Primakoff and Justin Sherman

This morning in Russia, as polls opened for three days of voting to elect a new parliament, Apple and Google submitted to an escalating pressure campaign by the Russian government and deleted opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s app from their respective app stores. Their decisions come after months of government efforts to suppress Navalny’s Smart Voting project, which published a voter guide available through the app. The Russian government has reacted to this voter guide as if facing a serious national security threat—a reaction that has stirred international controversy. The furious (and ultimately successful) efforts to suppress this voter guide not only demonstrate the Russian government’s determination to assert broad control over both the outcome of Russian elections and the information Russian citizens can access online, but also how the underlying dynamics of Russia’s censorship agenda can become an international problem, forcing companies based outside its borders into complicity with domestic repression.

The Smart Voting project is a response to the Russian government’s evolving strategy for controlling electoral outcomes. A decade ago, barely disguised mass ballot falsification in the December 2011 Duma elections inspired the largest mass protest movement of the Vladimir Putin era. Since then, the Kremlin has sought to reduce its reliance on falsifying results by tightly controlling who is allowed to appear on the ballot in the first place. In the highest-profile example of this strategy, a court decision disqualified Navalny from the 2018 presidential race. This past June, Putin signed a law banning all members of extremist organizations from running for office; a court designated Navalny’s organization as “extremist” five days later.

Starting with regional elections in September 2019, Navalny’s team has responded to the banning of opposition candidates from elections by urging its supporters to engage in tactical voting through the Smart Voting project. The project’s goal is to demonstrate the opposition’s electoral potency by denying as many elected offices as possible to members of Putin’s United Russia party. Participants receive recommendations for the candidates in their local races most likely to prevail over United Russia opponents, helping unite protest votes in favor of a single candidate. In the project’s 2019 initial run, United Russia lost several seats in the Moscow parliament, and Navalny declared the project a success. Navalny’s team ran the project again during municipal elections in 2020 and again found the results encouraging. His strategist Leonid Volkov recently told the Associated Press that “so far about 15 percent to 20 percent of candidates endorsed by Smart Voting have won seats in legislatures,” but “we can’t say we’re omnipotent… There’s a long way to go.”

The Kremlin has reason to worry about Smart Voting in 2021. United Russia’s support has dipped to historic lows of below 30 percent in some recent polls. Due to its structural advantages in Russia’s complex parliamentary system, the party still has a realistic chance of maintaining the parliamentary supermajority (more than 60 percent of seats) it won in 2016, but it won’t be easy. As the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Andrei Kolesnikov writes, the Kremlin would interpret this accomplishment as a stamp of legitimacy on the political status quo, almost certainly ruling out any deviation from the current repressive direction before the presidential election in 2024. The regime’s degree of concern over the outcome is visible in the extraordinary steps it has taken to prevent Russian voters from seeing Smart Voting’s recommended candidates.

On September 2, the Russian government ordered Apple and Google to remove Navalny’s app from their app stores. When the companies refused to comply, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the US ambassador in Moscow to complain about “interference in Russian elections.” Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal agency tasked with overseeing online content, sent notices to the US tech companies, claiming that their refusal could be viewed as “interference by… American companies in [Russian] elections.”

And on Wednesday, the head of the Russian Federation Council’s sovereignty commission called on Apple and Google to send representatives to a session the next day to discuss the app store censorship orders. Shortly thereafter, Russian telecom companies reportedly blocked access to Google Documents because Navalny’s team published a list of candidates endorsed by Smart Voting on the document-sharing platform. At Thursday’s meeting of the sovereignty commission, Apple and Google representatives faced angry questioning from Russian parliamentarians, and later that day Russia’s MFA spokeswoman threatened unspecified “barriers” to American businesses in Russia if the tech companies continued to refuse to delete the app. On Thursday evening, Navalny’s team reported that the Smart Voting website was being targeted by distributed denial-of-service attacks. Finally, as the first voters headed to the polls on Friday morning, Apple and Google complied with the government’s demands and deleted the app.

Russia’s political opposition and civil society more broadly have reacted to the decision with anger and disgust; Navalny’s strategist Volkov wrote that the companies “have caved into the Kremlin’s blackmail.” While the tech companies may have been acting out of justified concern for the security of their Russia-based employees, there is no doubt that this decision represents a major blow to internet freedom in Russia, which has rapidly declined this year in the face of a sustained government assault.

This intense censorship pressure comes in the context of a broader online crackdown that began in January and has consistently escalated since then. When Russians protested against Navalny’s immediate imprisonment following his return to the country after recovering abroad from a failed assassination attempt apparently carried out by the Russian government, police arrested some Navalny supporters for merely mentioning the protests on social media. The Kremlin also pressured foreign and domestic media companies to remove protest-related content. Many of the companies complied, including foreign platforms YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, and domestic platforms VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. At the same time, the Kremlin intensified its use of the “foreign agents” law to pressure the operations of US government-backed Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. By March it was using the same repressive “foreign agents” law, a key instrument in the repression of civil-society organizations since 2012, against a wide range of online media companies. Then, when Twitter refused to comply with government censorship orders, Roskomnadzor began “throttling,” or slowing down, access to the site. Despite ongoing negotiations between Twitter and Roskomnadzor, the throttling remains in place, demonstrating the government’s ability to filter the internet.

Taken together, these efforts represent a shocking deterioration of the already poor conditions for freedom of information in Russia. The diversity and thoroughness of tactics used to prevent independent media and opposition political activists from reaching their audiences online show a government moving rapidly toward asserting, if not realizing, the power to censor from Russian internet users any material it chooses.

The actions taken against global tech companies and the US government in the course of this crackdown illustrate the international component of the Kremlin’s censorship efforts, in which it uses the language of the real challenges the internet poses to democratic governments (such as online radicalization and foreign political interference) to justify authoritarian actions imposing further domestic censorship. This strategy is not only a rhetorical one—the familiar deployment of whataboutism to deflect international criticism. It is also practical: These claims of interference and radicalization are used as the basis of concrete demands the Russian government is making of international actors, thereby pressuring them into complicity with its censorship tactics. This dynamic suggests that as the Kremlin continues to crack down on online freedom of information within Russia, the international repercussions will remain a source of conflict pitting Russia against countries and tech platforms pursuing a vision of a free and open global internet.

Dylan Myles-Primakoff is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and the director of business development for the NewNode project at Clostra. Follow him on Twitter at @DylanPrimakoff.

Justin Sherman is a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. Follow him on Twitter at @jshermcyber.

Further reading

Image: The Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny's Smart Voting app is seen on a phone in Moscow, Russia on September 16, 2021. Photo via REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov.