Apple and Google have removed jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s voting app from the iOS and Android stores under pressure from the government. The New York Times reports that the removal followed threats to criminally prosecute company employees within Russia.
A spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters that the app was “illegal” and Apple and Google had acted “in accordance with the law.” On Twitter, Navalny aide Ivan Zhdanov called its removal “a shameful act of political censorship.”
The Russian government has mounted a sustained campaign against Navalny’s app, which was meant to rally voters against Putin’s party in Russia’s parliamentary election. The country’s internet censor threatened earlier this month to fine Apple and Google, alleging that keeping the app on the store constituted election interference. Apple briefly stalled updates to the app, but neither company removed it at that time.
Russian censors have blocked websites linked to Navalny, and the pressure on Apple and Google is part of a larger crackdown on foreign tech companies. Twitter was throttled in Russia for allegedly failing to remove illegal content, and a court fined Twitter and Facebook (as well as messaging app Telegram) over illegal content earlier this week. A court fined TikTok for similar offences in May. Apple and Google didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Apple has received past criticism for removing protest and media apps in China. The Navalny app removal also threatens to undermine one of its arguments in a recent privacy controversy over scanning iCloud photos. While Apple says that technology would be strictly limited to finding child sexual abuse material, sceptics fear the company could cave to pressure from authoritarian governments to expand it — something Apple has strongly denied it will do.
“Apple’s defence of removing voting guides is that they have to obey the law of the nations they operate in. And yet if legislators demand they expand their image scanning corpus, they say they will refuse,” tweeted John Hopkins University professor and cryptographer Matthew Green, one of the scanning system’s most prominent critics. “They intend to break the law in that case, but not this one?”