Earlier this month, when the Kremlin called on several big tech companies to suppress political opposition nationwide elections in Russia, their answer was unequivocal: no. Yet just two weeks later, Apple and Google deleted from their app stores, the Smart Voting app, opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his party’s main tool to consolidate votes against Vladimir Putin’s regime. Then Telegram and YouTube owned by Google also limit access to recommendations for opposition candidates that Navalny shared on these platforms. Putin was of course ecstatic.
The sudden drop in the knees of US technology platforms has not only hampered the opposition’s ability to communicate with the Russian people. It also marked the dangerous effectiveness of a new Kremlin policy: forcing foreign tech companies to put employees on the ground, so that they could then be coerced and threatened to do Kremlin auctions. Despite everything politicians and analysts around the world discuss internet censorship in technical terms, this episode is a powerful reminder that old-fashioned force can decisively tighten a state’s grip on the world. Web.
Putin’s regime has long relied on brutality to oppress, beating protesters and sloppy attempted assassination of Navalny for imprisonment him while still recovering from poisoning. It is therefore not surprising that after Navaly’s imprisonment Mass nationwide protests that the Kremlin is trying to control all possible electoral risks, including by powerful US tech companies.
One of Putin’s main targets was Navalny’s smart voting project, which over the past two years has successfully disseminated candidate recommendations to voters interested in removing seats in parliament from Putin’s ruling United Russia party. . Hence the absurdity of the Russian internet regulator demand that US tech platforms censor smart voting. Russian mobile network providers were able to to block Russia’s full access to Google Docs, simply because Navalny’s team released a document listing the challengers of United Russia. But when Apple and Google resisted removing the opposition app, the regime went from code to muscle.
In July, Poutine sign a law that obliges foreign IT companies operating in the Russian market to open offices in the country. The Kremlin would say it’s about ensuring compliance with Russian national security laws, but it’s really about putting bodies on the ground to intimidate. Not all platforms have set up yet (Twitter remains a hindrance), but Apple and Google have. So when they did not comply with the demands of censorship, the Kremlin sent gunmen sitting in Google’s Moscow offices for hours on end. Russian parliament too summoned Google and Apple representatives desks to a session on the Navalny app, where they were reprimanded and threatened. The government would have named specific Google employees he would sue if the company did not remove the app, and the same is likely true of Apple.
And, poof, the next morning both companies shut down and removed smart voting from their app stores. Apple further conceded by deactivate Private relay in Russia, a feature designed to ensure that when browsing the internet with Safari, no entity can see both the user’s identity and what they are viewing. This has undoubtedly bolstered the (already robust) ability of the Russian Federal Security Service to spy on citizens’ online traffic. YouTube, widely used in Russia by the opposition, then deleted a video in which the Navalny camp lists the names of the main opposition candidates and Telegram blocked access to Navalny’s electoral services.
The debacle exposes the error of decades of American rhetoric about “Internet freedom” that pushed the idea that Western tech companies operating in authoritarian states would lead to democracy. During the Arab Spring, for example, many American experts ignored the importance of local blogs and civic organizations to call the movements a “Twitter revolution”. A 2010 speech by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed how authoritarian regimes used the Internet to their advantage, but still reflected the prevailing view that more Western technology in dictatorships would promote “freedom.” In another piece of data indicating otherwise, it was the physical presence of these companies in Russia that made them vulnerable to Putin’s will.
In Russia, Apple and Google get muscle by the state
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