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Apple and Google have removed from their online stores a tactical voting app created by supporters of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny following heavy pressure from the Kremlin as voting began in the country. parliamentary elections.
Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store blocked new downloads of the app in Russia on Friday morning after “multiple legal demands, not demands” from the country’s communications regulator and law enforcement , according to a person familiar with the situation.
The move is the biggest concession to date by Western tech companies to the Kremlin’s increasingly stringent demands for censorship of online content. President Vladimir Putin has said that the Internet could “collapse society from within” if it does not “abide by the formal legal rules and moral laws of society”.
The person familiar with the situation also said that Google employees have received public and private threats of criminal prosecution if the company does not comply with the Kremlin’s request to remove the app from the store and search engines.
They said gunmen, considered by staff to be police officers, spent several hours in Google’s Moscow offices on Monday. The Russian judicial officers’ service said on Tuesday that its agents had surrendered to demand that the company comply with a decision by the Moscow court to suppress the application of search results.
The person believed threats to personnel of this nature were unprecedented, saying it had “never been so bad before”.
Apple and Google both declined to comment on Friday.
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, said US tech companies “bowed to the Kremlin’s blackmail” after the app – which is designed to encourage the tactical vote against Putin’s United Russia party – disappeared from it. ‘App Store and the Google Play Store.
“This is a crucial moment for Russia. It seems that the big tech companies are starting to cooperate even more closely with the repression of the authorities, ”said Alena Epifanova, researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
Apple justified the decision with a Moscow court ruling in June which declared the founding of Navalny “extremist organization“, According to a screenshot published by Ivan Zhdanov, the former director of the opposition group.
The anti-corruption activist was arrested in January on his return from Germany to Russia, where he had been treated for a poisoning with nerve agents he accuses Putin of having ordered.
After Navalny supporters staged protests in dozens of cities across the country, Russia responded with an unprecedented crackdown on dissent that has forced most of its key allies into exile.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the Kremlin welcomed the tech groups’ decision. “This application is illegal on the territory of our country,” Peskov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
The move signaled the Kremlin’s determination to wipe out all dissent from the internet ahead of the country’s three-day vote, which United Russia is expected to easily win despite growing discontent over declining living standards.
Putin has made bringing the internet under control a priority, according to a person close to the Kremlin.
“Imagine if it was the other way around and [a Russian platform] held 30 percent of the US research market? These platforms are global and the politics are national. So you have to either force them to comply with the law or ban them, ”they said.
With dozens of Navalny allies withdrawn from the ballot, his team is urging supporters to vote for the “loyal opposition” candidates approved by the Kremlin and recommended by the app. Peskov said the tactic was “provocative” and “would hurt voters.”
Russia accused Silicon Valley companies of interfering in the vote by refusing to remove any mention of Navalny’s app on the internet.
In a hearing Thursday, lawmakers then threatened Apple and local Google staff with criminal charges if they did not comply, along with fines ranging from 5% to 20% of local business revenues.