Big Tech companies around the world have always pledged to respect local laws and protect civil rights. However, when Apple and Google gave in to Russian demands and pulled a political-opposition application from their local apps stores, it raised concerns that two of the most successful tech companies in the world are more comfortable following undemocratic edicts and maintaining steady profits than protecting the rights of their users.
Smart Voting was an app that allowed people to organize opposition to Russia President Vladimir Putin in advance of the weekend’s elections. Two of the most powerful and wealthy companies in the world banned Smart Voting last week, triggering a wave of support for free elections and freedom of expression.
Natalia Krapiva (tech legal counsel at Access Now), an internet freedom organization, said that “this is bad news for democracy” and “dissent all around the world.” “We expect to see other dictators following Russia’s footsteps.”
Many of the countries with less democratic governments have struggled to find technology companies that offer consumer services, from search to social media to applications. Over the past decade, Apple, Google, and other major companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook have become more powerful. Governments have also sought to harness this power for their own purposes.
“Now, this is the poster boy for political oppression,” stated Sascha Meinrath of Penn State University. She studies online censorship issues. Google and Apple “have increased the likelihood of this happening again.”
When the news about the app’s demise broke last week, neither Apple nor Google replied to requests from The Associated Press; they both remained silent this week.
Google also blocked access to two documents from its online service Google Docs. These documents listed candidates supported by Smart Voting. YouTube blocked similar videos.
A person who was directly familiar with the matter said that Google was subject to legal demands from Russian regulators, and threatened criminal prosecution for any employees who failed to comply. According to the same person, Russian police visited Google’s Moscow offices last Wednesday to enforce a court order blocking the app. Due to the sensitive nature of the matter, the person spoke on condition that they remain anonymous to the AP.
Google employees have apparently criticized the company’s concession to Putin’s power play, posting internal messages and images deploring the app’s removal.