Apple and Google shut down a voting app meant to help opposition parties organize against the Kremlin in a parliamentary election in Russia that’s taking place over the weekend. The companies removed the app from their app stores on Friday after the Russian government accused them of interfering in the country’s internal affairs, a clear attempt by President Vladimir Putin to obstruct free elections and stay in power.
The Smart Voting app was designed to identify candidates most likely to beat members of the government-backed party, United Russia, as part of a broader strategy organized by supporters of the imprisoned Russian activist Alexei Navalny to bring together voters who oppose Putin. In a bid to clamp down on the opposition effort, the Russian government told Google and Apple that the app was illegal, and reportedly threatened to arrest employees of both companies in the country.
The move also comes amid a broader crackdown on Big Tech in Russia. Earlier this week, a Russian court fined Facebook and Twitter for not removing “illegal” content, and the country is reportedly blocking peoples’ access to Google Docs, which Navalny supporters had been using to share lists of preferred candidates.
— Ivan Zhdanov (@ioannZH) September 17, 2021
Critics say the episode serves as an example of why Apple, specifically, can’t be trusted to protect people’s civil liberties and resist government pressure. The company strictly controls the software allowed on to millions of devices and has recently faced allegations of monopolistic behavior with regard to how it manages its App Store, which is the only way people can install apps on iPhones and iPads. While Google is also being accused of caving to censorship demands, Android users can still access the Russian voting app without relying on the Google Play store, though it’s more difficult.
“Android users in Russia can find other ways to install this app, whereas Apple is actively helping the Russian government make it impossible for iOS users to do so,” Evan Greer, the director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future, told Recode. “Apple’s top-down monopolistic approach is at the root of their harm.”
Apple insisted just last month that it did, in fact, have the ability to defy this type of government influence. The company said so when it announced a new photo-scanning iPhone feature meant to identify images containing child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The tool, Apple explained, would involve downloading a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) photo database, in the form of numerical codes, onto every iPhone. The update would have run those codes against photos stored in users’ iCloud accounts, looking for matches that would be reported to human reviewers, and then to the NCMEC.
Though stopping the abuse of children is certainly worthwhile, the tool raised a lot of concerns for privacy advocates. Some said the update amounted to Apple building “a backdoor” into iPhones, one that could easily be exploited by bad actors or governments seeking data about their citizens. In the face of mounting criticism, Apple put the update on hold. But the company also insisted that it would never bow to government pressure.
“We have faced demands to build and deploy government-mandated changes that degrade the privacy of users before, and have steadfastly refused those demands,” the company said. “We will continue to refuse them in the future.”
Apple has long marketed privacy as a feature of its products. After the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Apple famously refused the FBI’s demand that the company build a back door into the iPhone. Earlier this year, Apple updated the iPhone’s operating system to allow users to opt out of the app-based trackers deployed by platforms like Facebook. Nevertheless, the company’s move on Friday to take down a voting app in Russia shows that Apple’s actual willingness to oppose government interference has its limits.
The Smart Voting app was meant to help supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in this weekend’s parliamentary elections.
Neither Apple nor Google provided a comment for this story.
Apple’s ambiguous commitment to protect its users’ civil liberties is especially concerning because the company still insists that it should control large swaths of the software available on the iPhone. While developers like Epic Games have been pushing back against this “walled garden” approach, Apple still manages to maintain wide-ranging discretion over what programs and apps run on its devices. But as recent events in Russia make clear, Apple’s tight control over its App Store can be abused by authoritarian governments.
“Apple was trying to bake censorship into the operating system, adding technology that could search our own phones for banned files,” warned Albert Fox Cahn, the director of STOP, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “But if one government can search for CSAM, another can search for religious texts and political discourse.”