BERKELEY, Calif. — Big Tech corporations that conduct business all around the world have long vowed to follow local laws and respect civil rights. However, the fact that Apple and Google bowed to Russian demands and removed a political-opposition app from their respective app stores raised concerns that two of the world’s most successful companies are more comfortable bowing to undemocratic edicts — and maintaining a steady flow of profits — than upholding their users’ rights.
Smart Voting was the app in question, and it was used to organize opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of the weekend elections. Last week’s ban by two of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful corporations infuriated proponents of free elections and free expression.
“This is awful news for democracy and dissent all around the world,” said Natalia Krapiva, a tech legal counsel with the internet freedom organization Access Now. “We anticipate other tyrants to follow Russia’s lead.”
In many of the world’s less democratic countries, technology businesses that provide consumer services such as search, social media, and applications have long walked a fine line. Over the last decade, as Apple, Google, and other big corporations such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook have risen in power, so have the government’s desire to use that power for its own goals.
Sascha Meinrath, a Penn State University professor who researches online censorship issues, stated, “Now this is the poster child for political tyranny.” “The likelihood of this happening again has been boosted” by Google and Apple.
Google also banned access to two papers on its Google Docs service that identified Smart Voting’s favored candidates, while YouTube prohibited comparable videos.
According to a source familiar with the situation, Google has faced legal demands from Russian authorities as well as threats of criminal prosecution of individual workers if it did not cooperate. Russian authorities were claimed to have visited Google’s Moscow offices last week to implement a court order to disable the app, according to the same source. Because of the sensitivity of the situation, the individual spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity.
Employees at Google are said to have criticized the business for caving into Putin’s power play by releasing internal texts and photos mocking the app’s removal.
As Google’s objectives appeared to collide with its one-time corporate slogan, “Don’t Be Evil,” adopted by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin 23 years ago, such pushback has been increasingly prevalent in recent years. Page and Brin, whose family fled the former Soviet Union for the United States when he was a child, are no longer active in Google’s day-to-day administration, and that slogan has long been abandoned.
Apple, on the other hand, has a lofty “Commitment To Human Rights” on its website, however, a close reading of that statement implies that the business would obey the government where lawful government mandates and human rights conflict. “We follow the stronger norm where national law and international human rights standards vary,” it says. “We respect national legislation while attempting to uphold the norms of internationally recognized human rights where they are in conflict.”
According to a new study from the Washington-based charity Freedom House, worldwide internet freedom has deteriorated for the 11th year in a row and is under “unprecedented strain” as more countries than ever before jail online users for “nonviolent political, social, or religious speech.” According to the study, officials in at least 20 nations have halted internet access, and 21 governments have banned access to social media sites.
China was ranked as the worst country for internet freedom for the eighth year in a row. Threats of this nature, however, come in a variety of shapes and sizes. For example, Turkey’s new social media laws compel sites with more than a million daily users to delete information considered “offensive” within 48 hours of being alerted or face escalating penalties such as fines, advertising bans, and bandwidth limitations.
Meanwhile, according to Freedom House, Russia has added to the existing “labyrinth of rules that multinational IT businesses must negotiate in the country.” The organization cited conspiracy theories and disinformation regarding the 2020 elections, as well as monitoring, harassment, and arrests in reaction to racial-injustice rallies, as reasons for the deterioration in overall internet freedom in the United States.
To operate in these nations, big IT companies have typically agreed to follow country-specific restrictions for content takedowns and other concerns. This can range from the open banning of opposition parties in Russia to the censoring of posts concerning Holocaust denial in Germany and other parts of Europe where it is prohibited.
Opposition lawmakers were outraged by the app’s removal. The firms “bent to the Kremlin’s blackmail,” said Leonid Volkov, a senior strategist for imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, on Facebook.
Ivan Zhdanov, a close supporter of Navalny, claimed on Twitter that the politician’s team is considering filing a lawsuit against the two firms. “Expectations: the government cuts down the internet,” he derided the move. Reality: the internet shuts down out of fear.”
It’s likely that the fallout may cause one or both firms to rethink their plans to operate in Russia. In 2010, Google took a similar move, pulling its search engine from mainland China when the Communist government there began filtering search results and YouTube content.
Russia isn’t a big market for Apple, whose yearly sales are estimated to be about $370 billion this year, or Google’s parent company, Alphabet, whose revenue is expected to be around $250 billion this year. Profits, however, are profits.
“There are some difficult choices you have to make on when you should exit the market if you want to take a moral position on human rights and freedom of speech,” said Kurt Opsahl, general counsel for the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation.