Google, Apple remove Navalny app from stores as Russian elections begin

A view of an election billboard of the ruling United Russia political party in Moscow, Russia, 25 August 2021. Elections to the Russian State Duma (Russia's lower house of parliament) will be held from 17 to 19 September 2021. [EPA-EFE/MAXIM SHIPENKOV]

Alphabet’s Google and Apple have removed jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s tactical voting app from their stores, his team said on Friday, after Russia accused the US tech firms of meddling in its internal affairs.

Russia goes to the polls on Friday (17 September) to elect a new parliament in a three-day vote that the ruling United Russia party is expected to win despite a ratings slump after the biggest crackdown on the Kremlin’s critics in years.

Allies of Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest domestic opponent, planned to use the mobile app to organise a tactical voting campaign to deal a blow to United Russia.

Russia demanded this month that Apple and Google remove the app from their stores, saying a refusal to do so would be treated as meddling in its parliamentary election.

Apple and Google did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

On Thursday, Russia said official approaches had been made to the two companies’ chief executives.

Kira Yarmish, press secretary to Navalny, said on Friday the removal amounted to political censorship.

Vadim Subbotin, deputy head of state communications regulator Roskomnadzor, signalled sizeable fines were possible for Western companies which also include Twitter and Facebook.

While Russia has already levied several small fines on foreign tech companies, imposing penalties based on their turnover suggests potentially much bigger sums.

Roskomnadzor now has “substantial” tools capable of enforcing the requirements of Russian law, he said, without giving further details.

Roskomnadzor has successfully slowed the speed of Twitter since March, impeded some VPN providers from operating, and last week blocked major domain name system (DNS) services for several hours.

“Now, Russia is way ahead of China in terms of blocking capabilities,” IT expert Mikhail Klimarev told Reuters.

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