Apple and Google have removed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s voting app from iOS and Android stores under government pressure. The New York Times reports that the removal followed threats to criminally prosecute company employees in Russia.
A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin told reporters that the app was “illegal” and that Apple and Google had acted “in accordance with the law”. On Twitter, Navalny assistant Ivan Zhdanov mentioned its removal “a shameful act of political censorship.”
The Russian government has waged an ongoing campaign against Navalny’s app, which was designed to rally voters against Putin’s party in the Russian parliamentary election. The country’s internet censorship threatened earlier this month to fine Apple and Google, claiming that keeping the app in the store constituted election interference. Apple has paused updates to the app for a while, but neither company has removed it at the 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 slowed down in Russia for allegedly failing to remove illegal content, and a court fines Twitter and Facebook (as well as the messaging app Telegram) about illegal content earlier this week. A court fined TikTok for similar crimes in May. Apple and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Apple has been criticized in the past for removing protest and media apps in China. The removal of the Navalny app also threatens to undermine one of the arguments in a recent privacy controversy over iCloud photo scanning. While Apple says technology would be strictly limited to finding child sexual abuse material, skeptics fear the company would yield to pressure from authoritarian governments to expand it — something Apple has vehemently denied.
“Apple’s defense of removing voting guides is that they must obey the law of the countries in which they operate. And yet when lawmakers demand that they expand their imaging corpus, they say they will refuse.” tweeted John Hopkins University professor and cryptographer Matthew Green, one of the most prominent critics of the scanning system. “They intend to break the law in that case, but not this one?”