Bloomberg - - Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc. removed a boycott voting app from their Russian stores on Friday as the parliamentary elections got underway, a move that pleased the Kremlin but was met swiftly by Washington and opposition activists.
Why Do U.S. companies have caved in to Kremlin s blackmail? Alexey Navalny, a top aide to jailed opposition leader Leonid Volkov, wrote on Telegram. The Putin critic supporters denounced the move as a shameful act of political censorship. Google removed the App under pressure after officials threatened to imprison its local employees, a person close to the company said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Apple and Google did not immediately respond to calls for comment.
The Russian authorities had accused the companies of meddling in the elections by selling opposition applications despite rulings banning access to the content. The head of parliament s committee on investigating Russian interference in domestic affairs, Vasily Piskarev, said Thursday that companies may face criminal charges if the apps weren t removed, the state news service Tass reported. Regulators warn of new fines and other measures.
Navalny's so-called Smart Voting Initiative is intended to galvanize discontent over stagnant living standards to defeat ruling party candidates. Moscow is holding three days of voting for the State Duma lower house of parliament from Friday to Sunday, in which Putin's unpopular United Russia party is counting on a commanding victory.
The smart voting app, also accessible by Navalny's eponymous version, wasn t accessible on Friday in Google Play or App Store in Russia though it remains visible to users in other countries. Russian courts have declared online references to smart voting and banned Navalny s organizations extremist Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov welcomed the removals, saying, these applications are illegal on the territory of our country. The crackdown also led to interruptions in access to Google Docs in Russia after Navalny s supporters used the text editor to distribute its lists of recommended candidates, according to Roskomsvoboda, an internet advocacy group. Similar problems were distributed earlier in the week with Apple's App Store, through which the smart voting app was reported.
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Vladimir Putin, 68, has sharply stepped up efforts to rein in the Internet after two decades in power that has remained a bastion of free speech. Earlier this year after mass protests at Navalny's imprisonment, Russia slowed down access to twitter. It also slapped fines of several million dollars on social media companies including Google and Facebook for not deleting calls for demonstrations that were ruled illegal by authorities.
The Kremlin has resorted to forcing competitors off the ballot and navalny allies have been forced into exile or jailed. The smart voting effort, which mostly urges picking Communist candidates, could still present a challenge to the preferred candidates of Kremlin in some races, particularly in major cities.
The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador last week to complain that American Digital giants are violating British laws on non-interference in elections. Court bailiffs visited Google's office in Moscow early this week over smart voting ban.
Formal grounds for the complete blocking in Russia of Apple, Google, YouTube, Facebook and others, said Damir Gainutdinov, an Internet freedom expert at the Agora Human Rights Group. Authorities also trying to force virtual private network providers to stop users from accessing unauthorized content and circumventing the bans, he said.
For now, it seems they have just tested their ability to limit information, said Gainutdinov. The risk is that Russia can opt for much tighter control. The restrictions come as the Kremlin has waged an increased crackdown on political life, jailing thousands of protesters and detaining opposition activists. Navalny, who served a 2 year prison term last year, barely survived a chemical poisoning attack that he and Western governments blamed on Kremlin. Russian officials deny any role in the nerve-agent attack. Russia also banned navalny s organizations this year, labelling them extremist.