Big Tech's Russian Capitulation is an International Problem

Tech companies have become less willing to stand up to autocratic governments

The outcome of last weekend's Russian parliamentary vote was not a surprise. The party of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, United Russia, continued to hold a big majority. It solidified its majority after a large number of online votes came in for United Russia from liberal cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, raising accusations of fraud. Tatiana Stanovaya, an independent political consultant in Moscow, said on Telegram that it wasn't a real election, but “the administering of a pre-planned result within permissible boundaries.”

What was surprising, or at least new, was the acquiescence of Western tech companies to the Kremlin's goal of shutting down the banned opposition's strategy known as Smart Voting. The strategy, spearheaded by the organization of jailed political dissident Alexei Navalny, uses research and data to direct voters to the candidate most likely to defeat the member of Putin's party. While Navalny is prohibited from running candidates in elections, the so-called systemic opposition -- smaller parties that sit in Russia's parliament but don't meaningfully oppose the Kremlin -- can run. 

Apple and Google came under heavy -- and unprecedented -- pressure to delete the app. The New York Times and Bloomberg reported that the Russian government presented Google with a specific list of employees who would face felony charges if they did not remove the app. The head of the State Duma Commission on foreign meddling said on September 16 that U.S. I.T. companies would face "criminal consequences" if they didn't comply.

Apple and Google took down the Smart Voting app from their stores on the morning that the election started on September 17. YouTube, owned by Google, later took down a video on Smart Voting.

The move indicated that even Apple and Google, which each have larger market capitalizations than the entire Russian economy, are now effectively under the control of the Russian government. These companies faced a choice -- comply or risk being kicked out. They chose to comply.

It's a choice that they might not have made a decade ago. In keeping with its motto "don't be evil," Google stopped complying with Chinese censors in 2010 for its search engine. It was blocked from the country and remains so, despite company efforts to return. It's not entirely clear why Google held the line on China and didn't on Russia, but it's a question that the company should answer.

According to a member of Navalny's organization, Ivan Zhdanov, a screenshot from Apple read that the removal was because of an earlier Russian government designation that his organization was "extremist." The government recently blacklisted the Navalny organization, placing it in the same legal category as far-right groups.

The implications of the capitulation are serious. Russia, like many authoritarian countries, lacks free media; television is under state control and journalists are routinely arrested. Protest is criminalized. Social media platforms are the closest thing to a free public square. As the viral Navalny video about an opulent palace allegedly constructed for Putin demonstrated, platforms are an alternative means of distribution for political messaging. Without them, the opposition has few ways to get its message out.

Russia is not the only country pressuring international tech companies. According to U.S.-funded NGO Freedom House, in 2021, at least 48 countries have tried to regulate technology companies, mostly to crack down on free expression. "Global norms have shifted toward greater state intervention in the digital market," wrote Adrian Shahbaz and Allie Funk in the organization's annual Freedom on the Net report. They added that most regulations "simply impose state and even political responsibilities on private firms without securing greater rights for users." Many regulations use the real problem of misinformation to crack down on government critics.

In May, the Indian government raided local Twitter offices (although employees were working from home in the pandemic) and has placed tech companies under a legal regime allowing the government to give orders to remove a wide array of content. Turkey has passed a similar law, requiring platforms to remove content the government deems offensive or risk escalating fines and penalties.

A decade ago, tech companies might have gambled that Internet freedom was good for business and, in the long run, their open platforms would win out over censoring governments. Across the world, many governments, such as Russia, have become increasingly autocratic. Now, the tables have turned -- authoritarian governments are calling the shots.

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