Big Tech companies that do business all over the world have long promised to follow local laws and protect civil rights. However, when Apple and Google caved in to Russian demands and removed a political-opposition app from their respective app stores, it raised concerns that two of the world’s most successful companies are more comfortable bowing to undemocratic edicts — and maintaining a steady flow of profits — than upholding their users’ rights.
The app in question, Smart Voting, was a tool for organizing opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of the weekend elections. The ban imposed last week by two of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful corporations outraged supporters of free elections and free expression.
Technology companies that provide consumer services ranging from search to social media to apps have long walked a tightrope in many of the world’s less democratic countries. Over the last decade, as Apple, Google, and other major corporations such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Facebook have grown more powerful, so have government ambitions to harness that power for their own ends.
According to a source with direct knowledge of the situation, Google faced legal demands from Russian regulators as well as threats of criminal prosecution of individual employees if it did not comply. According to the same source, Russian police visited Google’s Moscow headquarters last week to enforce a court order to block the app.
Employees at Google have reportedly blasted the company’s capitulation to Putin’s power play by posting internal messages and images mocking the app’s removal.
That kind of backlash has become more common within Google in recent years, as the company’s ambitions appeared to contradict its former corporate motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” adopted by cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin 23 years ago. Neither Page nor Brin are currently involved in Google’s day-to-day management, despite the fact that Page’s family fled the former Soviet Union for the United States when he was a child.
According to a recent Freedom House report, global internet freedom has declined for the fifth consecutive year and is under “unprecedented strain,” with more countries arresting internet users for “nonviolent political, social, or religious speech” than ever before. According to the report, officials in at least 20 countries have suspended internet access, and 21 states have blocked access to social media platforms.
China was named the worst country for internet freedom for the seventh year in a row. But such threats take several forms. For example, Turkey’s new social media regulations require platforms with over a million daily users to remove content deemed “offensive” within 48 hours of being notified, or face escalating penalties such as fines, advertising bans, and bandwidth limits.
Meanwhile, according to Freedom House, Russia has added to the existing “labyrinth of regulations that international tech companies must navigate in the country.” Overall online freedom in the United States has also declined for the fifth year in a row, according to the group, citing conspiracy theories and misinformation about the 2020 elections, as well as surveillance, harassment, and arrests in response to racial-injustice protests.
To operate in these countries, big tech companies have generally agreed to follow country-specific rules for content takedowns and other issues. This can range from the blocking of Holocaust denial posts in Germany and other parts of Europe where they are illegal to the outright censorship of opposition parties, as in Russia.
The app’s removal was widely condemned by opposition politicians. On Facebook, Leonid Volkov, a top strategist for imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny, wrote that the companies had “bent to the Kremlin’s blackmail.”
It is possible that the negative publicity will cause either or both companies to reconsider their commitment to operating 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 YouTube videos.
Russia is not a major market for either Apple, whose annual revenue is expected to approach $370 billion this year, or Alphabet, Google’s corporate parent, whose revenue is expected to reach $250 billion this year. However, profits are profits.