In its campaign to eliminate jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny’s banned Smart Voting app, the Russian government has entered into a showdown with the United States over whether U.S. tech giants Apple and Google followed a “political order” to maintain access to the app ahead of Russia’s September 17-19 parliamentary elections.
A key concession from the two companies occurred on September 17: As of morning, the Navalny! app from which Smart Voting could be downloaded was no longer accessible from Apple’s App Store and Google Play within Russia, according to the Navalny team.
Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh expressed regret on Twitter that the companies "had played into the hands of "a corrupt regime ..."
Calling Apple and Google's decision "an enormous mistake," Ivan Zhdanov, the former head of Navalny’s regional network and Anti-Corruption Foundation, tweeted an apparent communication from Apple in which the company confirmed that the Navalny! app was removed from the Russian App Store “because it includes content that is illegal in Russia, which is not in compliance with the App Store Review Guidelines.”
Russian officials maintain that Navalny-associated apps are illegal because the Navalny movement has been officially classified as extremist. Hints have been dropped about potential criminal prosecutions of any foreign companies seen as violating Russian law on this point.
Zhdanov later tweeted that Navalny’s team is considering suing Apple and Google for removing Smart Voting from their platforms in Russia. The app is still accessible outside of Russia.
The U.S. financial news site Bloomberg reported that Google decided to remove the app after officials threatened to imprison its employees in Russia, according to "a person close to the company," who did not want to be named.
Similarly, citing another anonymous source "familiar with the company's decision," The New York Times reported that Google removed the app after "the Russian authorities" threatened specific staff in Russia with criminal prosecution.
Russian officials' ire and the condemnations from digital communications cop Roskomnadzor also target the U.S. firms Cloudflare and Cisco, which, like Google, provide access to public DNS (Domain Name System) servers that enable voters to find websites that feature Smart Voting.
Some Russian digital rights activists warn that recent efforts to restrict access to these servers – and the app -- could signal a selective shutdown or slowdown of regional Internet access in Russia during the vote.
The Smart Voting app, which debuted in 2019, offers voters recommendations about which opposition parliamentary candidates stand the best chance of defeating the ruling United Russia party.
Its effectiveness is disputed, but Navalny supporters have credited the app for cutting into United Russia’s results in some local elections. For a ruling party projected by the government-run All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) to receive no more than 35.3 percent of the parliamentary vote, that background is difficult to overlook.
To Senator Andrei Klimov, chair of the upper house of parliament’s interim sovereignty committee, “foreign opponents, foreign centers that specialize in anti-Russian activities” are using the app ahead of the elections “to promote those people on whom they’ve made a bet.”
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, projected by VTsIOM to win 20.5 percent of the parliamentary vote, received the majority of Smart Voting’s 225 recommendations for 2021.
Neither the U.S. government, given its history of anti-communism policies, nor privately owned U.S. tech companies are known for championing the election of communist parties, but Moscow maintains it has proof of “foreign interference” in its upcoming vote.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has stated that all the “serious enough” data related to this charge were given to U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan when he was summoned to the foreign ministry on September 10. The ministry, now awaiting an official response, has not described or made these findings public.
Google and Apple’s September 16 refusal to remove the Smart Voting or Navalny! app from their platforms was sufficient proof for one member of the Central Election Commission, Igor Borisov.
The Moscow City Court deemed the Navalny movement “extremist” this June for supposedly attempting to incite a popular uprising against the government. To Russian officials, that means that the movement’s apps violate the law.
Borisov interpreted Google and Apple’s remarks before the Federation Council’s Interim Commission for the Protection of State Sovereignty and Prevention of Interference in the Russian Federation’s Internal Affairs as a sign that they are executing a “political order” and “spreading extremist content, brushing it aside as if they had nothing to do with it.”
Google’s representative, Aleksandr Monin, did not have power of attorney, however, and was not questioned, noted Roskomnadzor Deputy Chairman Vadim Subbotin, who attended the hearing. Apple’s responses clarified nothing, he said.
One of the company’s representatives, Sergei Voitishkin, stated that responsibility for the content of an app on Apple’s App Store lies with its developer, rather than with Apple Inc, the state-run TASS news agency reported.
That assertion may only further the government’s suspicions.
On September 14, the Kommersant daily’s anonymous Ъ columnist cited a “diplomatic source” who noted that the developer of Smart Voting’s iPhone app, Roman Rubanov, now works on “special projects” for a California-based space-transportation company, Momentus, whose management and board of directors contain individuals with Pentagon ties.
Momentus’ chairman and chief executive officer, John C. Rood, has held senior posts related to national security policy within both the U.S. Defense and State Departments.
The company’s president, Fred Kennedy, and board director Victorino Mercado also have held senior Pentagon positions.
“The assumption is that the Pentagon and State Department will be able to explain this and not dodge an answer,” the “diplomat” said.
The U.S. government has long denied any claims of interference in Russia’s elections.
The concept of a dividing line between prominent, private tech firms and a government, however, is not a natural one for the Kremlin, which, over the past 21 years, has steadily increased its own control over major companies working in Russia’s Internet sector.
Momentus does not appear to have commented on the Kommersant column, but Rubanov, who is the company’s director of financial planning and analysis, tweeted a photo that spoofed the paper’s claims.
In the photo, Rubanov digs a hole, while the “State Dept.” and workers labeled “reptiloids” look on.
But for Roskomnadzor, the charges are no laughing matter.
Subbotin commented that his agency is still waiting to see how Google and Apple respond to its demands before deciding to fine the two companies for non-compliance.
Criminal charges could also await the pair, as well as tougher consequences for large IT firms that violate Russian laws, warned Vasily Piskarev, the head of the Duma’s anti-foreign-interference committee and a member of United Russia’s parliamentary faction.
Among other measures, Roskomnadzor already has blocked access to websites offering the Smart Voting app and prevailed upon Russian search engine Yandex not to disclose the name in its results.
In the meantime, work has begun on targeting the infrastructure on which websites that distribute the Smart Voting app rely.
On September 8, Rostelecom, Russia’s majority-government-owned digital communications provider, issued a company directive not to use foreign domain name system servers such as Google, Cloudflare, and DoH Cisco, according to a corporate document posted on Telegram.
Often called a phonebook or address book, a DNS server converts a site’s domain name (currenttime.tv, for instance) into a numerical address that enables browsers to find the site on the Internet.
Without access to DNS servers, browsers cannot load websites, including those that offer the Smart Voting app or its list of candidates.
Rostelecom stated that its desire to avoid Google and Cloudflare’s DNS server and Cisco’s encrypted DNS server is intended “to counteract threats to the reliability, security, and integrity” of a working Internet within Russia.
As an alternative to foreign DNS services, Rostelecom proposed using its own DNS servers or the IP addresses of Russia’s National System of Domain Names.
The head of Russia’s non-governmental Internet Defense Society, Mikhail Klimaryev, noted on September 8 that access to the Cloudflare, Google, and Cisco servers had decreased to 75 percent.
The next day, after Roskomnadzor termed Apple, Cisco, Cloudflare, Google and unnamed foreign firms’ resistance to its Smart Voting warnings “foreign interference” in Russia’s elections, a nearly five-hour-long shutdown of access to Google and Cloudflare’s DNS servers took place, according to Internet accessibility monitor GlobalCheck.
“Apparently, this is in preparation for the servers being completely turned off, and the Internet’s interconnectivity will drop,” predicted Sarkis Darbinian, a lawyer for Roskomsvoboda, a non-governmental digital-rights organization.
Klimaryev, an outspoken critic of Roskomnadzor's Internet policies, agreed. Citing security threats, Roskomnadzor could partially turn off the mobile Internet in various regions to restrict the information available to voters about election-day events or where to vote, he commented.
Hardware that Internet providers are required to install already allows Roskomnadzor to block certain sites in certain regions, slow down traffic to certain sites (such as Twitter), or redirect it as “countermeasures against threats,” Darbinian noted.
YouTube, which contains most Russian opposition groups’ information, could be among the targeted sites, Klimaryev believes. Roskomnadzor and the Duma, the lower house of parliament, already have a long-standing battle running with popular U.S.-based social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube over their content.
Nonetheless, despite Roskomnadzor’s efforts, the Smart Voting list of recommended opposition candidates went public on September 15.
Navalny’s associates used the politician’s eponymous app (Navalny!) to release it. The names of the recommended candidates also appeared on YouTube, GoogleDocs, and, among various Russian Internet locations, the Yandex Disk cloud server, and the banking site Tinkoff.
On September 15, Navalny’s YouTube account posted a video about Smart Voting’s recommendations that received over 1.62 million views within a day.
GoogleDocs also contained information about these recommendations. GlobalCheck reported that the platform had been blocked late on September 15, but Roskomnadzor denied it. Access appeared to have been restored by the morning of September 16.
Roskomnadzor has not commented publicly about whether its anti-Smart-Voting efforts could extend to regional Internet disruptions.
Such disruptions during an election season, however, would not be without precedence.
Russia’s close ally, Belarus, experienced an Internet outage during and immediately after its own August 2020 presidential election as national protests over the official results broke out.
The country’s outgoing president, Alyaksandr Lukasehnka, blamed the connectivity problems on foreign cyberattacks. The head of the State Security Committee (KGB), however, earlier had stated that a “security threat” would prompt such an outage.
“Security” has also become a watchword for Russian officials tackling the Smart Voting app. But for digital-rights attorney Darbinian, this campaign does not bode well for the Internet’s future in Russia.
As matters stand, he warned, Russia appears to be sliding into “the digital Middle Ages.”
Yet for the Central Election Committee’s Igor Borisov, Smart Voting only demonstrates the dangers of unrestricted Internet access.
“The opening of the Internet’s borders, like freedom of speech [and] the dissemination of information, carries negative factors as well,” he commented. “In particular, the impact of digital giants such as Apple and Google.”
-With additional reporting from AFP, Interfax, Reuters, RIA Novosti, and TASS