Earlier this month, when the Kremlin told multiple Big Tech companies to suppress political opposition amid 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 primary tool for consolidating votes against Vladimir Putin’s regime. Then Telegram and Google-owned YouTube also restricted access to the recommendations for opposition candidates that Navalny was sharing on these platforms. Putin of course was ecstatic.
The US tech platforms’ sudden knee-bending didn’t just hurt the opposition’s ability to communicate to the Russian people. It also marked the dangerous effectiveness of a new Kremlin policy: Force foreign tech firms to put employees on the ground, so they can then be coerced and threatened into doing the Kremlin’s bidding. For all that the world’s politicians and analysts 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 web.
Putin’s regime has long relied on thuggery to oppress, from beating protesters and a botched attempt to assassinate Navalny to jailing him as he was still recovering from being poisoned. So it’s no surprise that after Navaly’s imprisonment prompted mass nationwide protests that the Kremlin would try to control every possible election risk, including by strong-arming US tech companies.
One of Putin’s biggest targets was Navalny’s Smart Voting project, which has had success over the past couple of years in disseminating candidate recommendations to interested voters to take parliamentary seats away from Putin’s ruling party, United Russia. Hence the Russian internet regulator’s absurd demand that American tech platforms censor Smart Voting. Russian mobile network providers were able to block the entirety of Russia’s access to Google Documents, simply because Navalny’s team had posted a doc listing United Russia challengers. But when Apple and Google resisted deleting the opposition’s app, the regime turned from code to muscle.
In July, Putin signed a law that requires foreign information technology companies operating in the Russian market to open offices in the country. The Kremlin would say this is to ensure compliance with Russian national security laws, but it’s really about getting bodies on the ground to bully. Not every platform has yet set up shop (Twitter remains a holdout), but Apple and Google have. So when they wouldn’t comply with censorship demands, the Kremlin sent armed men to sit in Google’s Moscow offices for hours. Russian parliament also summoned representatives from both Google's and Apple’s offices to a session on the Navalny app, where they were berated and threatened. The government reportedly named specific Google employees it would prosecute if the company didn’t delete the app, and the same plausibly went for Apple.
And, poof, the following morning, both companies folded and removed Smart Voting from their app stores. Apple further conceded by disabling 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’re viewing. This undoubtedly bolstered the Russian Federal Security Service’s (already robust) ability to spy on citizens’ online traffic. YouTube, widely used in Russia by the opposition, then removed a video in which Navalny’s camp lists the names of leading opposition candidates, and Telegram blocked access to Navalny election services.
The debacle lays bare the misguidedness of decades of American “internet freedom” rhetoric that pushed the view that Western tech companies operating in authoritarian states would lead to democracy. During the Arab Spring, for example, many American pundits ignored the importance of local blogs and citizen organizing to brand the movements a “Twitter revolution.” A 2010 speech by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton addressed the ways authoritarian regimes were using the internet to their advantage but still reflected the prevailing view that more Western tech in dictatorships would promote “freedom.” In yet another data point to the contrary, it was these companies’ physical presence in Russia that made them vulnerable to Putin’s will.
For all that movies and the media portray modern censorship as filtering national internet traffic or launching DDoS attacks against disliked websites, this episode reminds that physically threatening people (with detention, arrest, prosecution, or worse) remains highly effective. It’s a bedrock of the Russian government’s internet control model. Instead of blocking thousands of foreign websites, for instance, the state has vague, complex, and inconsistently enforced speech laws that officials wield as they see fit. Technical blocks in some cases, plus widespread surveillance and a push for a domestic internet, are combined with intimidation, harassment, arrests, and other kinds of traditional coercion to push citizens into line. Now, the Putin regime is increasingly wielding force against foreign tech companies, to harmfully great effect.
While these tech companies purport to augment the freedoms of those living under autocratic rule, their cowardice in Russia has made Russians less free. Opposition candidates now have substantially greater reason to worry about whether they can rely on foreign tech platforms—to organize, disseminate information, and more. Russian citizens looking to use these platforms and services for political organization must wonder the same.
Google, Apple, YouTube, and other companies need to think much harder about the costs and risks of having employees on the ground who the Kremlin can threaten. Closing their Russian offices might prompt the Russian government to use technical measures against the website, such as throttling access from within Russia (as it did with Twitter back in April). Yet these companies are no strangers to facing technical blocking attempts in autocracies, and censorship demands over email or the phone are much easier to ignore when the state cannot haul employees into detention centers or interrogation rooms and threaten their physical safety. Theoretically using the internet to resist dictatorship from afar is one thing; risking physical safety to do so is another entirely.
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