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Apple and Google removed a tactical voting app created by supporters of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny from their online stores following heavy pressure from the Kremlin when voting began in the country’s parliamentary elections.
Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store blocked further downloads of the app in Russia on Friday morning after “multiple lawsuits, not requests” from the country’s communications regulator and law enforcement, according to a person close to. to the situation.
The move is the biggest concession yet by Western tech companies to increasingly stringent demands from the Kremlin to censor online content. President Vladimir Putin has said that the Internet could cause society to “collapse from within” if it does not “abide by the formal legal rules and moral laws of society.”
The person close to the situation also said that Google employees had received public and private threats of criminal prosecution if the company failed to comply with the Kremlin’s request to remove the app from the store and search engines.
They said armed men, whom the staff considered police officers, spent several hours at Google’s Moscow offices on Monday. Marshals also visited the offices a day later to demand that it comply with a Moscow court ruling to remove the app from search results.
The person believed that threats to personnel of this nature were unprecedented, saying that “it has never been so serious before.”
Apple and Google declined to comment on Friday.
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, said US tech companies had “given in to Kremlin blackmail” after the app, which is designed to encourage tactical voting against Putin’s United Russia party, disappeared from the App Store and Google Play Store.
Apple justified the decision under a Moscow court ruling in June declaring Navalny’s foundation an “extremist organization,” according to a screenshot posted by Ivan Zhdanov, a former head of the opposition group.
The anti-corruption activist was arrested in January as he was returning to Russia from Germany, where he had been treated for nerve agent poisoning that he accuses Putin of ordering.
After Navalny supporters staged protests in dozens of cities across the country, Russia responded with an unprecedented crackdown on dissent that forced most of its top allies into exile.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters that the Kremlin welcomed the technology groups’ decision. “This application is illegal on the territory of our country,” Peskov said, according to the Interfax news agency.
The move signaled the Kremlin’s determination to cleanse the internet of dissent ahead of the country’s three-day vote, which United Russia is expected to win easily despite growing discontent over falling living standards.
With dozens of Navalny allies removed from the ballot, his team urges his supporters to vote for Kremlin-approved “loyal opposition” candidates recommended by the app. Peskov said the tactic was “provocative” and would “hurt voters.”
Russia has accused Silicon Valley companies of meddling in the vote by refusing to delete any mention of the Navalny app on the internet. Despite being locked in the Google Play Store, the app information is still available through Google Search.
Andrei Klimov, chairman of a commission “for the defense of state sovereignty” in Russia’s upper house of parliament, said Apple and Google made the decision to remove the app from their stores after a series of coercive measures by the Kremlin.
The Foreign Ministry summoned US Ambassador John Sullivan last week to present “irrefutable evidence” that technology companies, including Apple and Google, were violating Russian electoral law.
In a hearing Thursday, lawmakers threatened Apple and local Google staff with criminal prosecution if they did not comply, as well as fines ranging from 5 to 20 percent of the companies’ local revenue.
“Google and Apple made the only correct decision,” Klimov said in a video posted by the committee’s channel on the Telegram messaging app on Friday. “It is very simple: everyone on Russian territory must follow the Russian constitution and Russian law.”