Just a few weeks ago, Russia’s federal censor blocked the website for Alexey Navalny’s voting initiative “Smart Vote.” On September 15, Navalny’s team went ahead and released their list of recommended candidates regardless, uploading it to a Google Doc. Later that evening, Google Docs became temporarily unavailable inside Russia. On the first day of voting in the State Duma elections, September 17, tech giants Apple and Google caved to pressure from the Russian authorities and pulled Navalny’s mobile app from the App Store and Google Play. What’s more, Apple disabled its new “Private Relay” feature for users inside Russia. To find out more about whether or not Apple and Google had a choice in these matters — and what this means for the future of the RuNet — Meduza spoke to lawyer Sarkis Darbinyan from the digital rights group Roskomsvoboda.
“Google had nothing to do with the problems accessing Google Docs,” Roskomsvoboda lawyer Sarkis Darbinyan tells Meduza. Though the web service was inaccessible via a number of Russian telecoms service providers on the evening of September 15, Darbinyan explains that Google Docs was actually blocked by the authorities using specialized “Internet isolation” equipment. Russia’s federal censor (Roskomnadzor), uses these same “technical means for countering threats” to block websites run by opposition figures and sites that contain “banned content” (Darbinyan names the move to block Alexey Navalny’s website and the website of the now-defunct rights group Team 29 as recent examples).
According to The New York Times, sources said that Google agreed to disable local access to the “Navalny” app after Russian authorities directly threatened individual staff at Google inside Russia. In turn, Apple said it blocked the app on the grounds that it “includes content that is illegal in Russia, which is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.” The tech giant also cited Russian officials’ claims that “the app violates the legislation of the Russian Federation by enabling interference in elections.”
“I’ve never heard about the launch of criminal cases against corporate employees. I’ve never heard of Apple and Google blocking applications themselves [anywhere] in the world. And for Russia this is definitely the first case,” Darbinyan maintains.
If Apple and Google had refused to remove Navalny’s app, they would have faced fines and other sanctions, Darbinyan says, such as the Russian authorities throttling local traffic or shutting down their payment systems. “This means the payment services Apple Pay and Google Pay could’ve stopped working in Russia,” the expert explains.
“By all appearances, the corporations didn’t want an escalation of the conflict,” Darbinyan continues. “The pressure on commercial companies is coming from many sides and it’s very unwise to expect them to suddenly become human rights organizations and start defending the rights of citizens. For them, the most important thing is to maximize profit.”
According to Darbinyan, Roskomnadzor’s technical capabilities have increased significantly since they famously failed to block the messaging app Telegram in 2018–2019. Today, the agency has all the necessary equipment — namely, the “technical means for countering threats” — to effectively censor online content that the authorities consider harmful to Russian Internet users. “All of this is happening right now because after the adoption of the law on the sovereign Internet [in 2019], it took almost two years to create the technical infrastructure, adopt by-laws, and set up tools,” the lawyer explains. “It was anticipated that the authorities would become more active by the fall. And that’s what happened […] From the fall of 2021, the Internet will never be the same again.”
Darbinyan predicts that in the near future, Roskomnadzor may slow down local traffic on major social networks like Telegram, Facebook, and Youtube. “The Russian authorities may not block [it], but simply make using a service inconvenient by lowering its speed to a minimum,” he tells Meduza, recalling recent attempts to throttle Twitter and block VPN services. “Who will be next is the big question. But given the large number of complaints against Telegram, Facebook, and YouTube, one of the major resources may fall under the gun.”
The way Darbinyan sees it, Russia’s Internet censorship is inching ever closer to China’s “Golden Shield” system (colloquially known as the “Great Firewall”). And it’s getting increasingly difficult for RuNet users to bypass the multiple layers of “censorship filters” — both technical and legal — that the government has in place. “The authorities themselves are taking us back to the 2000s, reminding us of the slow connection speed that went through modems. Unfortunately, this will soon become our reality,” Darbinyan warns. “So far there are [still] VPN services that run on secure protocols, there’s the Tor browser, and other tools for bypassing blocks. But such tools are becoming increasingly unavailable, and users have to master new tools for accessing information and protecting their own privacy.”
We won’t give up Because you’re with us
I’m with you, Meduza
Summary by Eilish Hart
Photo Credit: Sarkisyan Darbinyan on Facebook