On September 17, the first day of parliamentary elections in Russia, Apple and Google accepted the Russian government’s demands to remove a strategic voting app developed by opposition leader Alexei Navalny from the iOS and Android app stores.
Apple then turned off its Private Relay feature (which improves the privacy of web browsing) for users in Russia. Google has also removed YouTube videos giving advice on how to vote strategically in elections.
In the past, big tech companies have generally ignored Russian government censorship demands. So why did America’s tech giants finally give in to the pressure?
The answer provides insight into how Russia, a sophisticated cyber superpower, is building its sovereign internet. It maintains control, but without isolating itself from the Internet at large.
Is digital democracy an illusion?
Apple and Google both put democratic values at the center of their sales pitch.
Google used to have “don’t be mean” as an unofficial motto and in its code of conduct. It now proclaims that its mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.
Apple’s official policy is that “where national law and international human rights standards differ, we follow the highest standard.” Such marketing claims are based on the language of cyber-utopia, a concept that sees the Internet as a force for democracy in the world.
But many experts have been skeptical; American researcher Evgeny Morozov called cyber-utopia an “illusion”. This skepticism has grown in recent years, with growing evidence of a conflict between democratic values and the core business model of for-profit tech companies.
On top of that, authoritarian governments have started to develop ways to avoid the democratizing effects of the Internet. A key strategy is to build a “sovereign” Internet that isolates itself from the rest of the Web.
The flagship model comes from China, which has built an almost parallel Internet infrastructure behind its “great firewall”. Human Rights Watch warned that Russia’s approach is based on the same principle of “growing isolation from the World Wide Web.”
For many years, the Internet has been a relatively democratic force in Russia, which has the most Internet users in Europe.
The internet is increasingly important in Russian politics as the younger generations ignore state-sponsored media and engage through Western technology platforms. Navalny relied heavily on this to build his political movement.
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Until recently, the Russian state struggled to regulate this activity, allowing Navalny to build up a large following. In fact, efforts to regulate technology platforms have seemed ineffective.
For example, in 2018 the government’s attempt to ban the Telegram messaging app collapsed into a farce. As it turned out, the Russians not only had the technical ability to block the app, it was also frequently used by Russian security services.
September parliamentary elections in Russia
The parliamentary elections held last month, however, have worrying implications for the democratic use of the Internet in Russia.
For a regime that relies heavily on the image, the results of this election were crucial in demonstrating to Russians and the international public that Vladimir Putin and his ruling party are still popular.
It had been two difficult years for the Russian regime. The pandemic has revealed serious governance gaps and polls have shown weakening support for the ruling party. The current regime had to show that it was in control, and it had to control the Internet to do so.
Read more: Vladimir Putin plans to win parliamentary elections in Russia, regardless of his party’s unpopularity
The ruling party initially responded with a brutal crackdown on the political opposition. In February, Navalny was sent to prison. Later, his entire organization was declared “extremist”, resulting in the blocking of its websites and the imprisonment or exile of several of its members.
In addition, the Russian state has refined its Internet censorship tools. Among other provisions, a law introduced in July required foreign social media companies with more than 500,000 Russian visitors per day to have employees in Russia.
Meanwhile, sophisticated techniques have been developed to slow Internet access to targeted platforms.
Operating largely from exile, Navalny’s team continued to rely on the internet to influence Russia’s parliamentary elections. At the center of that effort was the team’s Smart Voting app, designed to undermine the ruling party’s monopoly by uniting the opposition.
The app was initially available through Apple’s and Google’s app stores. But the Russian state pressured tech giants to withdraw it in the days leading up to the election, threatening two key actions if they did not comply.
First, the state is reportedly suing Russia-based Google and Apple employees. Second, he promised to slow down internet traffic to Apple and Google platforms in Russia, and to shut down Apple Pay and Google Pay services.
Faced with a series of growing threats, the tech giants have finally backed down and removed the app.
A new model of the sovereign Internet?
The Russian regime has achieved a key victory in its attempt to build a sovereign internet. On the one hand, the state now has a technique to ensure the removal of sensitive online material that threatens its power.
On the other hand, he still has connections to the mainstream Internet (including Google and Apple) that he can manipulate for his own purposes. These cyber black-ops, the most famous of which was featured in the 2016 US presidential election, are a central part of Russian foreign policy.
To build this sovereign internet, Russia is harnessing a simple and inevitable truth: Tech giants are ultimately for-profit companies, with a priority to maximize profits and shareholder value.
And that poses two disturbing questions. Will other authoritarian countries follow Russia’s lead? And how can opposition movements that rely on big technology for their democratic organization react?
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