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Apple, Google yank opposition voting strategy app from Russian software stores
Oh, sorry, we thought you wanted us to obey the law?! – Silicon Valley
A tactical-voting app built by allies of Vladimir Putin’s jailed political opponent Alexei Navalny is now unavailable in Russian Apple and Google app stores following threats from the Kremlin.
According to state-owned news agency TASS, Russian lawmaker Andrei Klimov told reporters on Thursday that the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office sent statutory notices to Google and Apple ordering a takedown of the Navalny app on the grounds it was collecting personal data of Russian citizens and sought to interfere in the nation's elections. Refusal to do so would result in penalties, or perhaps worse.
“The app particularly deliberately and illegally spreads election campaign materials in the interests of some candidates vying for positions in elective agencies or against the interests of such," Klimov said.
Apple and Google, which say they comply with local laws where they operate, removed the app in Russia, willingly or unwillingly contributing to what Navalny's supporters called political censorship in Russia. The app remains available outside the country. Those in Russia who already have the application may still be able to use it.
With the app stores out of the way, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov took time to throw some shade at the US government. "We have reason to believe that the US authorities are also not completely helpless on this particular issue," Lavrov stated.
President Putin's allies are already sowing seeds of doubt in the election process, claiming foreign agents in election monitoring org Golos are plotting to discredit the results, despite the expectation that Putin's United Russia party will remain in power.
The election takes place from September 17, and will run for three days. Many cities are electing lawmakers to the State Duma – the lower house of parliament – via electronic voting. Putin himself will vote online. Also included in the election are the selection of nine Russian region heads and 39 regional parliaments. It's an important election for Putin as he would rather retain tight control of the country as the 2024 presidential poll approaches.
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The verboten app in question tells users who to tactically vote for, out of those running on behalf of as many as 14 parties, to prevent Kremlin-favored candidates from winning. It uses a system dubbed Smart Voting that was devised by Navalny. However, the vast majority of anti-Putin candidates have already been blocked from running, including those associated with Navalny.
Yesterday, Ivan Zhdanov, director of Navalny's Foundation for Fighting Corruption organization that developed the app, tweeted what appears to be an email from Apple explaining the reasoning for removing the application: prosecutors claimed the software would interfere with the elections, and that the foundation had been deemed an extremist org. As such the app is illegal in Russia. Its website was earlier this month blocked in the country by authorities.
Zhdanov called the removal a “mockery of common sense,” and a “huge mistake.” A tweet today from Zhdanov said in Russian:
We are considering filing lawsuits [against] Google and Apple in different jurisdictions. But all this is swinging your fists after a fight. Now we need to focus on spreading the recommendations of Smart Voting.
Navalny – leader of the opposition Russia of the Future party, a Putin critic, and an anti-corruption campaigner – suffered Novichok nerve-agent poisoning in 2020 that he accused the president of orchestrating. The Kremlin denied any involvement, though it did arrest him when he returned to Russia after seeking medical treatment in Berlin for the poisoning. While receiving this treatment outside of Russia, he violated his parole regarding a 2014 embezzlement conviction – which he claims was brought against him for political reasons – and was sentenced to 30 months behind bars.
His poisoning and detention was condemned by the West, and sparked anti-Kremlin protests in Russia. In a response to that unrest, the Russian government throttled Twitter in March and ordered social networks to delete posts related to any “participation in unauthorized mass events” as they deemed them illegal adolescent activities.
Google received a $40,700 fine for failing to fully comply.
Today, Roskomnadzor, Russia’s federal body that monitors, controls and censors Russian mass media, announced it had sent a letter to Twitter to demand why Moscow’s City Election Committee account had been restricted. The missive accused Twitter of foreign interference in the election. ®