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Big Tech grapples with Russian internet crackdown during elections


The Russian government is increasingly pressuring US tech companies to remove content from their platforms with threats of fines, strangulation and criminal prosecution for local staff ahead of this weekend’s parliamentary elections. end.

The scale of censorship demands, backed by recently passed laws targeting content deemed illegal, challenge internet companies’ commitments to human rights principles and internet freedom, experts say.

“Russia long ago realized the liberating power of digital technologies and digital platforms and how they can be used for anti-government protests,” said Baurzhan Rakhmetov, assistant professor at Kazguu University in Kazakhstan and internet censorship expert Russian. “So he passed restrictive laws targeting internet companies that silence opposition voices and political discourse.”

On Friday, after weeks of resistance, Apple and Google complied with an order to remove an app developed by Russian activists supporting jailed Kremlin critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny from their Russian app stores after that the country accused the companies of electoral interference.

Navalny’s ally Ivan Zhdanov describe the removal of the app by tech companies as a “shameful act of political censorship”.

Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment.

Since mid-August, the Russian federal censorship agency Roskomnadzor has threatened Apple and Google with fines if they do not remove the “Smart Vote” app, which encouraged users to tactically vote against the ruling United Russia party. during legislative elections. In notices sent to tech companies, the censorship body said any involvement in the activities of an extremist organization is considered a crime.

The Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, as well as the headquarters of its movement, have been classified by the Russian government as extremist organizations since May, as the Russian news agency TASS previously reported.

Russian servicemen from the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet forces visit a polling station in Baltiysk, Russia on Friday.Vitaly Nevar / Reuters

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said during a press call on Friday that the Kremlin did not like the Smart Vote project, which he described as “just another absolutely provocative attempt that is really damaging to voters “.

He said Apple and Google were following “the letter and the spirit of the law” in removing apps from Russian stores.

The withdrawal of Navalny’s app is the culmination of months of tension between Silicon Valley-based tech companies and Russian regulators. Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google agree to comply with local laws in the countries where they operate, but also have their own policies to enshrine internationally recognized human rights standards, as defined by the United Nations Guiding Principles on business and human rights. These principles state that when there is a conflict between local laws and human rights commitments, companies should challenge those laws to promote international human rights standards.

International human rights experts said the app’s withdrawal set a worrying precedent.

“Navalny’s only crime is that he is an opposition figure,” said David Kaye, professor of law at the University of California at Irvine and former United Nations special rapporteur on free speech. “He is truly an example of Russia and other countries expanding the definition of extremism beyond recognition. It’s absurd.

“The withdrawal of the app is really concerning,” he added, pointing to the “problematic” lack of transparency from Google and Apple on how they made their decision.

“We don’t know what kind of human rights impact assessment companies have done in the face of this kind of pressure. What does their analysis look like and what does their hindsight look like? “

Kaye added that both Google and Apple have offices and employees in Russia, which means the companies have “braced themselves for some sort of hostage-taking.”

“If they do not comply, their staff could suffer real harm, whether it be harm or arrest,” he said.

Daphne Keller, who heads the platform regulation program at the Cyber ​​Policy Center at Stanford University, said what is happening in Russia is part of a pattern of similar internet restrictions in place in the world, including India and Turkey.

“There are two stages. One is to pass laws requiring platforms to do certain things to signify compliance up front – even before receiving a opt-out request, ”she said, highlighting laws that require companies to have a local office with employees or data stored in the country. . “Then there’s the separate step of sending takedown requests using new laws that give them extra teeth and penalties that they can now apply. “

Companies have refused to comply with government orders in some cases, resulting in several fines and other significant penalties.

In February 2020, Russia fined Facebook and Twitter around $ 63,000 each for failing to store Russian user data on local servers, as a controversial law that came into effect in 2015 clarified. companies were again fined, along with Google, for continuing to violate the data storage law last month.

In March, Roskomnadzor strangled Twitter, which made use of the app extremely slow for some users, as he said it was a failure to remove illegal content, including incitement to suicide. , extremist content and child sexual exploitation material. The move follows a crackdown by Russian censorship on tweets that helped mobilize opposition protests, amid mass protests after Navalny’s jail in February.

The following month, a Moscow court fined Twitter approximately $ 117,000 for failing to remove tweets encouraging minors to participate in unauthorized protests.

In July, President Vladimir Putin signed a law requiring foreign social media giants to open offices in Russia.

This week, days before the election, Facebook, Twitter and Telegram were fined again for not removing illegal content.

Twitter declined to comment. Facebook responded first, asking for a list of questions and a deadline, and then either missed the deadline or responded to other inquiries.

Two Facebook employees, who asked that their names not be used because they are not allowed to speak in public, said the company was relying on international human rights principles to push back demands for withdrawal related to Navalny, including publications related to his vote. app, but they expected Apple and Google’s compliance to create more pressure on the social media giant.

“No matter what we do, Russia has the legal tools to suffocate us,” one employee said.

Silicon Valley companies have long pulled content at the behest of governments. According to the latest Twitter Transparency report for the second half of 2020, Russian authorities have filed 6,351 withdrawal requests, but Twitter has acted in only a quarter of them.

Facebook’s latest transparency report shows the company restricted 1,868 posts at Roskomnadzor’s request, although it does not disclose the number of requests that Facebook did not respond to.

Keller said transparency reports don’t go far enough. They can list the number of deleted items, but they fail to reveal the nature of the items.

“We don’t know if the requests are legitimate or problematic,” she said. “They could silence another political party. In addition, we do not know what requests could have come from governments in a less formal way. “

Kaye said the response of tech companies to Russian internet restrictions would be closely watched by other regimes looking to gain more control over online speech.

“It’s a dictator’s playbook,” Kaye said. “Authoritarian governments around the world will ask, ‘Well, did that work over there?’ “

One of the Facebook employees agreed. Russia, the employee said, was a relatively low-stakes market for the company, but one that strategically important large markets might seek to emulate.

“It’s an interesting test case, and countries like India are watching.”