BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) – Big tech companies that operate around the world have long promised to obey local laws and 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 fears that two of the world’s most successful companies would be more comfortable complying with it. undemocratic decrees – and to maintain a constant stream of profits – that defend the rights of their users.
The app in question, called Smart Voting, was a tool to organize opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of the elections held over the weekend. The ban imposed last week by two of the world’s richest and most powerful corporations angered supporters of free elections and free speech.
“This is bad news for democracy and dissent around the world,” said Natalia Krapiva, technical legal adviser for Access Now, an Internet freedom advocacy group. “We expect to see other dictators copy Russia’s tactics.”
Tech companies offering consumer services, from search to social media to apps, have long walked a tightrope in many of the world’s least democratic countries. As Apple, Google, and other big companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook have grown more powerful over the past decade, the government’s ambitions to harness that power for their own purposes have also grown.
“Now he’s the poster child of political oppression,” said Sascha Meinrath, a Penn State University professor who studies issues of online censorship. Google and Apple “have increased the likelihood of this happening again.”
Neither Apple nor Google responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press when news of the app’s removal broke last week; the two have also remained silent this week.
According to a person with direct knowledge of the matter, Google has faced legal demands from Russian regulators and threats of criminal prosecution against individual employees if it does not 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 due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Google’s own employees have reportedly criticized the company’s collapse over Putin’s power play by posting internal messages and pictures mocking the removal of the app.
This kind of backlash within Google has become more common in recent years, as the company’s ambitions seemed to conflict with its unique corporate motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” adopted by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin 23 years ago. Neither Page nor Brin – whose family fled the former Soviet Union to the United States as a child – are currently involved in the day-to-day running of Google, and that motto has long been put aside.
Apple, meanwhile, features a noble “Commitment to Human Rights” on its website, although a careful reading of this statement suggests that when government legal and human rights ordinances come into play. disagreement, the company will obey the government. “Where national law and international human rights standards differ, we follow the highest standard,” it read. “When they are in conflict, we respect national law while seeking to respect internationally recognized human rights principles.
A recent report by the nonprofit Freedom House in Washington found that global internet freedom has declined for the fifth year in a row and is under “unprecedented pressure” as more countries shut down Internet users for “non-violent political, social or religious discourse” than ever before. Authorities have suspended internet access in at least 20 countries and 21 states have blocked access to social media platforms, according to the report.
For the seventh year in a row, China ranks first as the worst environment for internet freedom. But such threats take many forms. Turkey’s new social media regulations, for example, require platforms with more than one million daily users to remove content deemed “offensive” within 48 hours of notification, or increased penalties. , including fines, advertising bans, and bandwidth limits.
Russia, meanwhile, added to the “existing maze of regulations that international tech companies must navigate in the country,” according to Freedom House. Overall online freedom in the United States also declined for the fifth consecutive year; the group said, citing conspiracy theories and misinformation about the 2020 election as well as surveillance, harassment and arrests in response to protests against racial injustice.
Large tech companies have generally agreed to abide by country-specific rules for content takings and other issues in order to operate in those countries. This can range from blocking Holocaust denial messages in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, where they are illegal, to outright censorship by opposition parties, such as in Russia.
The expulsion of the app has been widely denounced by opposition politicians. Leonid Volkov, one of the main strategists of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, wrote on Facebook that the companies were “bowing to the blackmail of the Kremlin”.
Navalny’s ally, Ivan Zhdanov, said on Twitter that the politician’s team are considering suing the two companies. He also scoffed at the decision: “Expectations: the government is shutting down the Internet. Reality: The Internet, out of fear, turns itself off.
It is possible that the backlash will prompt one or both companies to reconsider their commitment to operate in Russia. Google made a similar decision in 2010 when it pulled its search engine from mainland China after the Communist government began censoring search results and videos on YouTube.
Russia is neither a major market for Apple, whose annual revenue is expected to approach $ 370 billion this year, nor for Google’s parent company Alphabet, whose revenue is expected to reach $ 250 billion. dollars this year. But the profits are the profits.
“If you want to take a principled stance on human rights and freedom of expression, you will have to make tough choices about when you should exit the market,” said Kurt Opsahl, general counsel for the group. digital rights advocacy Electronic Frontier Foundation. .
Ortutay reported from Oakland, Calif. Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this story.