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Big tech companies operating around the world have long promised to comply with local laws and protect civil rights when doing business. But when Apple and Google acceded to Russian demands and removed a political-opposition app from their local app stores, it raised concerns that two of the world’s most successful companies are more comfortable succumbing to undemocratic orders — and losing profits. Maintaining a steady flow – than maintaining the rights of its users.

The app in question, called Smart Voting, was a tool to organize protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of elections due over the weekend. Last week a ban imposed by a pair of the world’s richest and most powerful companies has excited supporters of free elections and free expression.


“This is bad news for democracy and dissent around the world,” said Natalia Krapiva, technical legal advisor for Internet freedom group Access Now. “We expect other dictators to copy Russia’s strategy.”

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Technology companies offering consumer services from search to social media to apps have long taken a tough stand in many of the world’s less democratic countries. As Apple, Google and other major companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook have become more powerful over the past decade, so have the government’s ambitions to harness that power for their own ends.

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“Now it is the poster child for political harassment,” said Sasha Meinrath, a professor at Penn State University who studies online censorship issues. Google and Apple have “increased the likelihood of this happening again.”

Neither Apple nor Google responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press when news of the app’s removal broke last week; Both remained silent this week as well.

Google also denied access to two documents on its online service Google Docs that listed candidates supported by smart voting, and YouTube blocked similar videos.

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According to a person with direct knowledge of the matter, Google faced threats of criminal prosecution of individual employees by Russian regulators for failing to comply with legal demands and. The same person said Russian police visited Google’s Moscow offices last week to enforce a court order blocking the app. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Google’s own employees have reportedly destroyed the company’s cave in Putin’s power play by posting internal messages and images ridiculing the app’s removal.

Such backlash within Google has become more common in recent years as the company’s ambitions appeared to conflict with its one-time corporate motto, “Don’t Be Evil”, which was coined 23 years ago by cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. had adopted. Neither Page nor Brin—whose family fled the former Soviet Union for America in childhood—are currently involved in the day-to-day management of Google, and that motto has long been set aside.

Meanwhile, Apple lays out a great deal of “commitment to human rights” on its website, although a closer reading of that statement reveals that when there is a difference between a legal government mandate and human rights, the company will follow the government. . “Where national law and international human rights standards differ, we adhere to a higher standard,” it reads. “Where they are in conflict, we respect national law while seeking to respect internationally recognized human rights principles.”

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A recent report by Washington non-profit Freedom House found that global Internet freedom has declined for the 11th year in a row and is under “unprecedented stress” as more countries than ever have “nonviolent political, social or religious speech”. Internet users have been arrested for According to the report, authorities suspended internet access in at least 20 countries and 21 states blocked access to the social media platform.

For the seventh year in a row, China topped the list as the worst environment for Internet freedom. But such threats take many forms. For example, Turkey’s new social media rules require platforms with more than one million daily users to remove content deemed “objectionable” within 48 hours of being notified, or impose fines, advertising restrictions and bandwidth restrictions. There is a risk of increased penalties including limits.

Meanwhile, according to Freedom House, Russia added to the existing “labyrinth of rules that international tech companies must navigate in the country”. Overall online freedom in the US also declined for the fifth year in a row, with the group reporting conspiracy theories and misinformation about the 2020 election, as well as surveillance, harassment and arrests in response to racial-injustice protests. Quoting said.

Big tech companies have generally agreed to follow country-specific regulations for removing content and other issues to operate in these countries. This ranges from blocking posts about Holocaust denial in Germany and elsewhere in Europe to outright censorship of opposition parties in Russia.

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The removal of the app was widely condemned by opposition politicians. Leonid Volkov, the top strategist to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, wrote on Facebook that the companies were “leaning on Kremlin blackmail.”

Navalny’s aide Ivan Zhdanov said on Twitter that the politician’s team is considering suing both companies. He also mocked the move: “Expectations: Government shuts down the Internet. Reality: The Internet, in fear, shuts itself down.”

It is possible that the setback could prompt either or both companies to reconsider their commitment to operating in Russia. Google made a similar decision in 2010 when it pulled its search engine out of mainland China after the Communist government there began censoring search results and videos on YouTube.

Russia isn’t a major market for either Apple, whose annual revenue is expected to reach $370 billion this year, or Google’s corporate parent, Alphabet, whose revenue is projected to reach $250 billion this year. But profit is profit.

“If you want to take a principled stand on human rights and freedom of expression, you’re going to have to make some tough choices about when you should leave the market,” said Kurt Opshall, general counsel for the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. .