On September 17, the first day of Russia’s parliamentary elections, Apple and Google agreed to demands from the Russian government to remove a strategic voting app developed by opposition leader Alexei Navalny from the iOS and Android app stores.
Apple then disabled its Private Relay feature (which enhances web browsing privacy) for users in Russia. Google also removed YouTube videos giving advice on how to vote strategically in the elections.
In the past, large tech companies have generally ignored censorship requests from the Russian government. So why did the US tech giants finally cave in to pressure?
The answer provides a glimpse into how Russia, a sophisticated cyber superpower, is building its sovereign internet. It is preserving control, but without isolating itself from the broader internet.
Is digital democracy a delusion?
Apple and Google have both placed democratic values at the center of their sales pitch.
Google used to have “don’t be evil” as its unofficial motto and within its code of conduct. It now proclaims its mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”.
Apple’s official policy is that “where national law and international human rights standards differ, we follow the higher standard”. Such marketing claims draw on the language of cyber-utopianism, a concept that sees the internet as a force for democracy in the world.
But many experts have been skeptical; US researcher Evgeny Morozov famously called cyber-utopianism a “delusion”. This skepticism has increased in recent years, with mounting evidence of a conflict between democratic values and the core business model of for-profit tech companies.
Adding to this, authoritarian governments have begun to develop ways to avoid the democratizing effects of the internet. One key strategy is to construct a “sovereign” internet that isolates itself from the rest of the web.
The leading model comes from China, which has built an almost parallel internet infrastructure behind its “great firewall”. Human Rights Watch has warned Russia’s approach rests on the same principle of “increasing isolation from the World Wide Web”.
For many years, the internet had been a relatively democratic force in Russia, which has the most internet users in Europe.
The internet is increasingly important in Russian politics, as younger generations ignore state-sponsored media and engage through western tech platforms. Navalny has relied heavily on this to build his political movement.
Until recently, the Russian state struggled to regulate this activity, allowing Navalny to amass a large following. In fact, efforts to regulate tech platforms have seemed ineffective.
For instance, in 2018, the government’s attempt to ban the messaging app Telegram collapsed into a farce. As it turned out, the Russians not only lacked the technical capacity to block the app, it was also frequently used by Russian security services.
Russia’s September parliamentary election
The parliamentary election held last month, however, has some disturbing implications for the democratic use of the internet in Russia.
For a regime that relies heavily on image, the results of this election were crucial in demonstrating to both Russians and international audiences that Vladimir Putin and his ruling party were still popular.
It had been a difficult two years for the Russian regime. The pandemic exposed serious deficiencies in governance, and polls showed weakening support for the ruling party. The current regime had to show it was in control, and it needed to control the internet to do so.
The ruling party first responded with a vicious crackdown on the political opposition. In February, Navalny was sent to prison. Later, his entire organization was declared “extremist” — leading to the blocking of its websites, and the imprisonment or exile of several of its members.
In addition, the Russian state sharpened its tools for internet censorship. Among other provisions, a law introduced in July required foreign social media companies with more than 500,000 daily Russian visitors to have employees in Russia.
Meanwhile, sophisticated techniques were developed to slow down internet access to targeted platforms.
Operating largely from exile, Navalny’s team continued to rely on the internet to influence the Russian parliamentary election. At the center of this effort was the team’s Smart Voting app — designed to undermine the monopoly of the ruling party by uniting the opposition.
The app was initially made available through Apple’s and Google’s app stores. But the Russian state pressured the tech giants to remove it in the days leading up to the election — threatening two key actions if they failed to comply.
First, the state would prosecute Russia-based employees of Google and Apple. Second, it promised to slow down internet traffic to Apple and Google platforms in Russia, and shut down the Apple Pay and Google Pay services.
Facing an escalating series of threats, the tech giants eventually backed down and removed the app.
A new model of the sovereign internet?
The Russian regime secured a key win in its attempt to build a sovereign internet. On one hand, the state now has a technique for ensuring the deletion of sensitive online material that threatens its power.
On the other hand, it still has connections to the mainstream internet (including Google and Apple) that it can manipulate for its own goals. These cyber black-ops — most famously on show in the 2016 US presidential election — are a central part of Russia’s foreign policy.
To build this sovereign internet, Russia is exploiting a simple, unavoidable truth: tech giants are ultimately for-profit corporations, with a priority to maximize profits and shareholder value.
And this poses two worrying questions. Will other authoritarian countries follow Russia’s lead? And how can opposition movements that rely on big tech for their democratic organization respond?