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Putin critic Navalny slams Google and Apple for accepting Kremlin censorship

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(MOSCOW) — Russia’s best-known opposition figure, Alexey Navalny, has criticized Google and Apple for bending to Kremlin demands for censorship during recent parliamentary elections, accusing the tech giants of “cowardice” and of becoming “accomplices” to president Vladimir Putin’s efforts to suppress political opposition.

Both companies bowed to Russian government pressure to delete content relating to a tactical voting campaign promoted by Navalny during elections last weekend that saw Russia’s ruling pro-Putin party retain its majority amid accusations of widespread ballot-rigging and a crackdown on anti-Kremlin opposition.

“If something surprised me in the latest elections, it was not how Putin forged the results, but how obediently the almighty Big Tech turned into his accomplices,” Navalny said on Twitter on Thursday — a message written from prison and published by colleagues.

Navalny’s campaign, named Smart Voting, had called for people to vote for any candidate with the best chance of defeating the ruling party, United Russia. The online content had contained lists of registered candidates recommended by Navalny’s team.

Google and Apple removed Smart Voting apps from their stores in Russia, and Google blocked two related videos on YouTube.

The removals are the biggest concession the tech firms have made to Kremlin demands to restrict content and it has set off fears among liberal Russians that it is a significant step towards the companies accepting broader censorship in the country.

Russian authorities outlawed Navalny’s movement earlier this year, after jailing the anti-corruption activist and pro-democracy campaigner who survived a nerve-agent poisoning in 2020. The government in June designated Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional political offices as “extremist organizations,” equating them to violent terrorist groups and requiring social media platforms to ban their content.

The designation has been widely condemned internationally, including by the United States, as politically motivated.

Neither Google nor Apple have made a public statement on the app removals, and each declined to comment to ABC News. In an email explaining the decision to the Anti-Corruption Foundation, published online by Navalny’s team, Apple said it was obliged to follow local laws and cited Russian prosecutors’ allegations that the app enabled “election interference.”

Navalny accused the companies of allowing themselves to be used as instruments of the Kremlin to block legitimate efforts at peaceful opposition, saying they were worried about losing market access to Russia and calling them “hypocrites” for presenting themselves as firms driven by values such as improving the world. Google famously used “Don’t be evil” as a company motto.

“In our case, the very intention to organize voters in order to put competitive pressure on the ruling party was declared criminal, and Big Tech agreed with this,” Navalny wrote.

He also called on employees inside the companies to raise the issue, writing: “I know that most of those who work at Google, Apple, etc. are honest and good people. I urge them not to put up with the cowardice of their bosses.”

Google and Apple in the past largely have resisted Russian government demands that they remove content that criticizes authorities, racking up fines imposed by Russia’s state censor. But recently the Kremlin has escalated pressure on U.S. tech companies amid a broader crackdown on dissent.

The day before Apple and Google each removed the voting app, the companies were made to appear before a committee of Russia’s senate. Andrey Klimov, a prominent senator who heads a commission — Protection of State Sovereignty and Prevention of Interference in the country’s Internal Affairs — accused them of illegal election interference and threatened to penalize them with new legislation.

Days before that, court bailiffs visited Google’s offices in Moscow, demanding the company pay unpaid fines imposed by the state censor. The New York Times reported Google made the decision to remove Navalny’s app after authorities threatened to arrest local employees at Google’s Moscow office.

Security experts have said they’re concerned the Kremlin is now increasingly bent on taming foreign tech giants as it tightens its grip on the Russian internet. The government has blocked a growing number of sites and is developing infrastructure to allow it to cut off Russia’s acces to the global web, if deemed necessary. This year it began slowing down Twitter after the company refused to remove content.

Andrey Soldatov, author of “Red Web,” which examines the Russian government’s efforts to control the internet, said last week’s concession was unlikely to discourage the Kremlin from leaning on Google and Apple further. He said the government was increasingly confident in its technical capabilities to block major international platforms.

“To be honest,” he told ABC News by phone, “things look really, really dark right now.”

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