Earlier this month, when the Kremlin told multiple Big Tech companies to suppress political opposition amid nationwide elections in Russia, their answer was unequivocal: no. Yet just two weeks later, Apple and Google deleted from their app stores the Smart Voting app, opposition leader Alexey Navalny and his party’s primary tool for consolidating votes against Vladimir Putin’s regime. Then Telegram and Google-owned YouTube also restricted access to the recommendations for opposition candidates that Navalny was sharing on these platforms. Putin of course was ecstatic.
The US tech platforms’ sudden knee-bending didn’t just hurt the opposition’s ability to communicate to the Russian people. It also marked the dangerous effectiveness of a new Kremlin policy: Force foreign tech firms to put employees on the ground, so they can then be coerced and threatened into doing the Kremlin’s bidding. For all that the world’s politicians and analysts discuss internet censorship in technical terms, this episode is a powerful reminder that old-fashioned force can decisively tighten a state’s grip on the web.
Putin’s regime has long relied on thuggery to oppress, from beating protesters and a botched attempt to assassinate Navalny to jailing him as he was still recovering from being poisoned. So it’s no surprise that after Navaly’s imprisonment prompted mass nationwide protests that the Kremlin would try to control every possible election risk, including by strong-arming US tech companies.