BERKELEY, Calif. — Big Tech companies that operate around the globe have long promised to obey local laws and to protect civil rights while doing business. But when Apple and Google capitulated to Russian demands and removed a political-opposition app from their local app stores, it raised worries 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 the rights of their users.
The app in question, called Smart Voting, was a tool for organizing opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of elections held over the weekend. The ban levied last week by a pair of the world’s wealthiest and most influential companies galled supporters of free elections and free expression.
“This is bad news for democracy and dissent all over the world,” said Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel for Access Now, an internet freedom group. “We expect to see other dictators copying Russia’s tactics.”
Technology companies offering consumer services from search to social media to apps have long walked a tightrope in many of the less democratic nations of the world. As Apple, Google, and other major companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook have grown more powerful over the past decade, government ambitions haves to harness that power for their own ends.
“Now, this is the poster child for political oppression,” said Sascha Meinrath, a Penn State University professor who studies online censorship issues. Google and Apple “have bolstered the probability of this happening again.”
Neither Apple nor Google responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press when the news of the app’s removal broke last week; both remained silent this week as well.
Google also denied Access to two documents on its online service Google Docs that listed candidates endorsed by Smart Voting, and YouTube blocked similar videos.
According to a person with direct knowledge of the matter, Google faced legal demands by Russian regulators and threats of criminal prosecution of individual employees if it failed to comply. The same person said Russian police visited Google’s Moscow offices last week to enforce a court order to block the app. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.