On September 17, the day before Russia’s parliamentary elections, Apple and Google agreed to 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 disabled its private relay feature (which enhances Web browsing privacy) for users in Russia. Google also removed a YouTube video advising you to vote strategically in the election.
In the past, big tech companies have generally ignored censorship requests from the Russian government. So why did the American tech giant finally come under pressure?
The answer provides a glimpse into how Russia, a sophisticated cyber superpower, is building out its sovereign Internet. It is maintaining control, but without isolating itself from the wider Internet.
Is digital democracy an illusion?
Both Apple and Google have placed democratic values at the center of their sales pitch.
Google used to have “don’t be evil” as its unofficial motto and within its code of conduct. It now declares 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 adhere to a higher standard”. Such marketing claims are based on the language of cyber-utopianism, a concept that views the Internet as a force for democracy in the world.
But many experts have been skeptical; American researcher Evgeny Morozov famously called cyber-utopianism an “illusion”. This suspicion has grown in recent years, with increasing evidence of a conflict between democratic values and the core business models of for-profit tech companies.
Adding to this, authoritarian governments have begun to develop ways to avoid the democratic effects of the Internet. A key strategy is to build a “sovereign” Internet that differentiates itself from the rest of the web.
The leading model comes from China, which has built a nearly parallel Internet infrastructure behind its “Great Firewall”. Human Rights Watch warned that Russia’s approach is based on the same principle of “increasing isolation from the World Wide Web”.
For many years, the Internet has been a relatively democratic force in Russia, which has the largest number of Internet users in Europe.
The Internet is increasingly important in Russian politics, as the younger generation ignores state-sponsored media and engages through Western technology platforms. Navalny has relied heavily on it to build his political movement.
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Until recently, the Russian state struggled to regulate this activity, allowing Navalny to gather large numbers of people. In fact, efforts to regulate tech platforms seem to be ineffective.
For example, in 2018, the government’s attempt to ban the messaging app Telegram went awry. As it turned out, the Russians not only lacked the technical ability to block the app, but it was also frequently used by Russian security services.
Russia’s September parliamentary elections
However, last month’s parliamentary election has some troubling implications for democratic access to the Internet in Russia.
For a regime that relies heavily on image, the results of this election were instrumental in demonstrating to both Russian and international audiences that Vladimir Putin and his ruling party were still popular.
These two years were difficult for the Russian regime. The pandemic exposed serious deficiencies in governance, and elections showed weak support for the ruling party. The current regime had to show that it was under control, and to do so the internet needed to be controlled.
Read more: Vladimir Putin plans to win Russia’s parliamentary election, no matter how unpopular his party
The ruling party first responded with a vicious crackdown on the political opposition. In February, Navalny was sent to prison. Later, his entire organization was declared “extremist” – leading to the blocking of its websites, and the imprisonment or exile of many of its members.
In addition, the Russian state sharpened its tools for Internet censorship. Among other provisions, a law introduced in July required foreign social media companies to have employees in Russia with no more than 500,000 daily Russian visitors.
Meanwhile, sophisticated techniques were developed to slow down Internet access to targeted platforms.
Operating largely from exile, Navalny’s team continued to rely on the Internet to influence the Russian parliamentary election. At the heart of the effort was the team’s smart voting app – designed to undermine the ruling party’s monopoly by uniting the opposition.
The app was initially made available through the App Stores of Apple and Google. But the Russian state pressured the tech giant to remove it in the days before the election – threatening two major actions if they failed to comply.
First, the state will prosecute Russia-based employees of Google and Apple. Second, it promised to slow down Internet traffic on the Apple and Google platforms in Russia, and to shut down Apple Pay and Google Pay services.
Faced with a growing series of threats, the tech giant eventually backtracked and removed the app.
A New Model of Sovereign Internet?
The Russian regime won a significant victory in its attempt to create a sovereign Internet. On the one hand, the state now has the technology to ensure the removal of sensitive online content that threatens its power.
On the other hand, it still has connections to the mainstream Internet (including Google and Apple) that it can manipulate for its own goals. These cyber black-ops – most famously in the 2016 US presidential election – are a central part of Russia’s foreign policy.
To build this sovereign internet, Russia is using a simple, unavoidable truth: tech giants are ultimately for-profit corporations, with a priority to maximize profit and shareholder value.
And this raises two worrying questions. Will other authoritarian countries follow Russia’s lead? And how might opposition movements that rely on big technology for their democratic organization react?
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