Russia Ratchets Up Preelection Pressure Against Western Tech Giants

The Smart Voting or "Navalny" app is seen on an iPhone screen in Moscow.  

In the run-up to the September 17-19 national legislative elections, Russia has purged the field of almost all genuine opposition politicians and implemented multiple legal amendments that critics say could facilitate fraud.

And the battle against dissent has also been raging online.

In recent months, Russia has ratcheted up its campaign to rein in Western tech giants, stopping short of blocking the platforms outright but issuing hefty fines against Google, Facebook, and Twitter and demanding that they remove content the government has deemed offensive, dangerous, or lewd.

On September 9, the state-run news agency RAPSI reported that the Moscow prosecutor’s office had sent a letter to the chief operating officers of Apple and Google, Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai, with demands that their companies block a smartphone app run by the team of jailed opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.

According to RAPSI, the state views the app as technology funded from abroad and not by Russian taxpayers, and in turn as a violation of Russian electoral law.

"This testifies to Apple’s violation of Russian electoral law and illegal foreign meddling in the internal affairs of the country and its influence on the exercise of free will by Russian citizens," a source close to the prosecutor’s office was quoted by RAPSI as saying.

The app in question, which is simply called Navalny, is a key element in an electoral strategy that the Kremlin critic’s aides call Smart Voting.

Before voters begin casting ballots on September 17, the app is designed to alert registered users to local candidates who have the best chance of defeating rivals from the ruling United Russia party, which Navalny describes as a deeply corrupt "party of crooks and thieves."

But Navalny’s team has steadily lost ground in its monthslong standoff with the Kremlin since Navalny’s near-fatal poisoning in August 2020 by what he says were agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB).

The prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison on a disputed parole violation on February 2, and his nationwide political network has since been declared "extremist" and banned by the state.

The latest effort to block access to his app is part of a broader push — which has continued unabated over the past year — to sideline his beleaguered movement.

It’s also part of an effort by Russia to enforce complete compliance with restrictive Russian laws by major tech companies, including Western tech giants and Russian ones like Yandex, which reportedly also received the letter from the prosecutor.

In a parallel development on September 9, Interfax reported that Russia’s communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, demanded that Apple, Google, and U.S. telecommunications and software companies Cloudflare and Cisco work to enforce Russia’s blockage of the Smart Voting website — and limit users’ ability to circumvent the tools the state uses to prevent access.

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