Apple, Google remove election app for Navalny supporters in Russia, under pressure from Putin regime
Apple and Google have shut down a voting app meant to help opposition parties organize against the Kremlin in a parliamentary election in Russia that takes place this weekend. Businesses have removed the app from their app stores Friday after the Russian government accused them of interfering in the country’s internal affairs, a clear attempt by President Vladimir Putin to obstruct free elections and stay in power.
The Smart Voting app was designed to identify the candidates most likely to beat members of the government-backed United Russia party as part of a broader strategy organized by supporters of jailed Russian activist Alexei Navalny to rally voters opposed to Putin. In a bid to quell the opposition effort, the Russian government told Google and Apple that the app was illegal and threatened to arrest employees of the two companies in the country.
The move also comes as part of a broader crackdown on Big Tech in Russia. Earlier this week, a Russian court fined Facebook and Twitter for failing to remove “illegal” content, and the country reportedly blocked people’s access to Google Docs, which Navalny supporters were using to share information. lists of preferred candidates.
– Ivan Zhdanov (@ioannZH) September 17, 2021
Critics say the episode serves as an example of why Apple, in particular, cannot be trusted to protect people’s civil liberties and resist government pressure. The company strictly controls what software is allowed on millions of devices and has recently faced allegations of monopoly behavior regarding the way it operates its App Store, which is the only way for users to install apps on iPhone and iPad. While Google is also accused of giving in to censorship demands, Android users can still access the Russian voting app without relying on the Google Play Store, although this is more difficult.
“Android users in Russia can find other ways to install this app, while Apple is actively helping the Russian government to prevent iOS users from doing so,” Evan Greer, director of, told Recode. digital rights group Fight for the Future. . “Apple’s top-down monopoly approach is at the root of their prejudice.”
Apple insisted last month that it, in fact, has the ability to challenge this kind of government influence. The company said so when it announced a new iPhone photo scan feature to identify images containing child sexual abuse (CSAM) material. The tool, Apple explained, would involve downloading a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) photo database, in the form of digital codes, to each iPhone. The update reportedly ran these codes on photos stored in users’ iCloud accounts, looking for matches that would be reported to human reviewers and then to NCMEC.
While stopping child abuse is certainly helpful, the tool has raised a lot of concerns among privacy advocates. Some said it was up to Apple to build a “backdoor” in iPhones, which could easily be exploited by bad actors or governments looking for data on their citizens. In the face of growing criticism, Apple has suspended the update. But the company also insisted it would never give in to government pressure.
“We have already faced requests to create and deploy government-mandated changes that degrade user privacy, and we have firmly refused those requests,” the company said. “We will continue to refuse them in the future.”
Apple has long marketed privacy as a feature of its products. After the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Apple refused the FBI’s request to build a backdoor in the iPhone. Earlier this year, Apple updated the iPhone’s operating system to allow users to opt out of app-based trackers deployed by platforms like Facebook. Nonetheless, the company’s decision on Friday to remove a voting app in Russia shows that Apple’s real willingness to oppose government interference has its limits.
The Smart Voting app was intended to help supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in this weekend’s parliamentary elections.
Neither Apple nor Google provided comment for this story.
Apple’s ambiguous commitment to protecting the civil liberties of its users is of particular concern as the company still insists it should control large swathes of the software available on the iPhone. While developers like Epic Games have opposed this “walled garden” approach, Apple still manages to retain broad discretion over the programs and applications that run on its devices. But as recent events in Russia make clear, Apple’s tight control over its App Store can be abused by authoritarian governments.
“Apple was trying to build censorship into the operating system, adding technology that could search our own phones for banned files,” warned Albert Fox Cahn, director of STOP, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “But if one government can look for CSAMs, another can look for religious texts and political speeches.”