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Not good enough: Apple, Google bow to government pressure, censor content during Russian elections

Russia voted last weekend, and authorities — with the complicity of Big Tech — censored the population. As the world waits for the final results, Russian civil society and the #KeepItOn coalition have been documenting blatant instances of widespread censorship and internet disruptions over the past week. 

“Internet shutdowns and blockings are tactics used by bullies who are scared of their own people. This time, bullying forced the most powerful tech companies to bend to the Russian government’s will,” said Natalia Krapiva, Tech Legal Counsel  at Access Now. “This is bad news for freedom of expression around the world.”

During the weeks preceding Russia’s nationwide parliamentary elections, government censorship and pressure on tech companies intensified: 

  • On September 2, authorities ordered Apple and Google to remove Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting project app from their stores and platforms, and ordered blocking of VPNs to frustrate censorship and surveillance circumvention;
  • On September 8, Russia temporarily blocked Google and Cloudflare domain name system (DNS) services, resulting in reported internet outages;
  • On September 13, people reported difficulties using the Apple App Store;
  • On September 16, election eve, Apple unexpectedly disabled its Privacy Relay feature, which masks user data and browsing activity to counter surveillance;  
  • On September 16, Google Docs and services — both used by the Smart Voting project — were reportedly inaccessible in some areas;
  • On the morning of September 17, election day, Apple and Google pulled the Smart Voting project app from their stores in Russia. Both companies declined to issue official statements, however, anonymous claims that threats of criminal prosecution and armed raids at Google’s local subsidiary offices prompted compliance with government orders have circulated; 
  • On September 18, Google blocked selected Google Docs, and YouTube videos used by the Smart Voting project; and
  • On September 18, Telegram disabled its Smart Voting chat bot, later reinstating it. 

Furthermore, Navalny’s team and Russian independent news media, Novaya Gazeta, which has been reporting election irregularities, reported DDoS attacks on their websites before and during the elections. 

These human rights violations are accompanied by serious allegations of widespread ballot stuffing, violence, and doxxing against election observers, journalists, and opposition candidates. As the government continues to delay the results, the opposition is questioning the outcome, increasing the chance of mass protests.

Access Now and the KeepItOn coalition are reiterating the call to companies — including Apple and Google — to keep the internet open and secure in the aftermath of Russian elections, despite ongoing government pressure. The U.S. and all Freedom Online Coalition members must also step up and call out Russia’s unacceptable use of threats and intimidation against tech platforms to interfere with human rights.