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Apple and Google have removed a tactical voting app made by supporters of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny from their online stores following strong pressure from the Kremlin, as voting began in the country’s parliamentary elections.
Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store blocked further downloads of the app in Russia on Friday morning after “multiple legal demands, not requests” from the country’s communications regulator and law enforcement, according to a person close to the situation.
The move is the biggest concession yet by western tech companies to the Kremlin’s increasingly stringent demands for censorship of online content. President Vladimir Putin has said the internet could make society “collapse from the inside” if it does not “submit to formal legal rules and the moral laws of society”.
The person close to the situation also said Google employees had received public and private threats of criminal prosecution if the company did not comply with the Kremlin request to remove the app from the store and search engines.
They said armed men, thought by staff to be police officers, spent several hours in Google’s Moscow offices on Monday. Bailiffs also visited the offices a day later to demand it comply with a Moscow court ruling to remove the app from search results.
The person believed threats to staff of this nature were unprecedented, saying it had “never got this bad before.”
Apple and Google both declined to comment on Friday.
Leonid Volkov, chief of staff to Navalny, said the US tech companies had “caved to the Kremlin’s blackmail” after the app — which is designed to encourage tactical voting against Putin’s United Russia party — disappeared from the App Store and the Google Play Store.
Apple justified the decision under a Moscow court ruling in June that declared Navalny’s foundation an “extremist organisation”, according to a screenshot posted by Ivan Zhdanov, the opposition group’s former director.
The anti-corruption activist was arrested in January when he returned to Russia from Germany, where he had been treated for a nerve agent poisoning he accuses Putin of ordering.
After Navalny’s supporters organised protests in dozens of cities nationwide, Russia responded with an unprecedented crackdown on dissent that forced most of his top allies into exile.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters the Kremlin welcomed the technology groups’ decision. “This app is illegal on the territory of our country,” Peskov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
The move indicated the Kremlin’s determination to clear the internet of dissent ahead of the country’s three-day vote, which United Russia is expected to win easily despite rising discontent about slumping living standards.
With dozens of Navalny’s allies struck from the ballot, his team is urging supporters to vote for Kremlin-approved “loyal opposition” candidates recommended by the app. Peskov said the tactic was “provocative” and would “harm voters.”
Russia has accused Silicon Valley companies of meddling in the vote by refusing to scrub all mention of Navalny’s app from the internet. Despite being blocked on the Google Play Store, information from the app is still available via Google Search.
Andrei Klimov, chair of a commission “on defending state sovereignty” in Russia’s upper house of parliament, said Apple and Google made the decision to remove the app from their stores after a series of coercive measures from the Kremlin.
The foreign ministry summoned US ambassador John Sullivan last week to present him with “irrefutable evidence” that tech companies, including Apple and Google, were violating Russian election legislation.
At a hearing on Thursday lawmakers then threatened Apple and Google’s local staff with criminal prosecution if they failed to comply, as well as fines ranging between 5 per cent and 20 per cent of the companies’ local revenue.
“Google and Apple made the only correct decision,” Klimov said in a video published by the committee’s channel on messaging app Telegram on Friday. “It’s very simple: everyone on Russian territory must follow the Russian constitution and Russian law.”