Apple and Google take down the election app for Navalny’s supporters in Russia, under pressure from Putin’s regime

Apple and Google have shut down an assisted voting app to help opposition parties organize against the Kremlin in a Russian parliamentary election that happened over the weekend. Companies are removing the app from their app stores on Friday after the Russian government accused them of interfering in the country’s internal affairs, a clear test by President Vladimir Putin to block free elections and stay in power.

the Smart Voting app is designed to identify candidates who are likely to beat members the government -backed party, United Russia, as part of a broader strategy organized by supporters of imprisoned Russian activist Alexei Navalny to mobilize voters opposed to Putin. In a request to curb the opposition’s efforts, the Russian government told Google and Apple that the app was illegal, and reportedly threatened to be arrested employee of the same company in the country.

The move also comes amid a more widespread crackdown on Big Tech in Russia. Earlier this week, a Russian court fined Facebook and Twitter for failing to remove “ILLEGAL”Inside, and the country is reportedly blocked people’s access to Google Docs, which was previously used by Navalny supporters to share lists of preferred candidates.

Critics say the episode serves as an example of why Apple, specifically, is unreliable to protect people’s freedom and curb government coercion. The company strictly controls the software allowed on millions of devices and has recently faced allegations of monopolistic behavior about how it manages the App Store, which is the same way people can install apps on iPhones and iPads. While Google has also been accused of caveatizing censorship demands, Android users can still access the Russian voting app without trusting the Google Play store, even if it’s more difficult.

“Android users in Russia will find other ways to install this app, while Apple is actively helping the Russian government make it impossible for iOS users to do so,” said Evan Greer, director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, told Recode. “Apple’s top-down monopolistic approach is at the root of their damage.”

Apple insisted last month that it, in fact, has the ability to counter this kind of government influence. The company said this when it announced a new iPhone photo scanning look intended to identify images containing child sexual abuse (CSAM) material. The tool, Apple explained, will include the download of a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) photo database, in the form of numerical codes, on each iPhone. The update would have run those codes against photos stored in users ’iCloud accounts, looking for matches to report to people reviewing, and then to NCMEC.

Even if stopping child abuse is certainly beneficial, the use is being raised many concerns for privacy advocates. Some said the update cost Apple building “a backdoor”To iPhones, one that can easily be exploited by bad artists or government seeking data about their citizens. In the face of rising criticism, Apple posted the update. But the company also insisted it would never bow to government pressure.

“We have faced demands to build and deploy government-mandated changes that have undermined the privacy of former users, and have firmly denied those requests,” the company said. SAYS. “We will continue to deny them in the future.”

Apple has long sold privacy as a part of its products. After the San Bernardino terrorist attack, Apple famously denied the FBI’s request that the company put a door on the back of the iPhone. Earlier this year, Apple updated the iPhone operating system allow users to opt out of app-based trackers distributed on platforms such as Facebook. However, the company’s move on Friday to take down a voting app in Russia shows that Apple’s genuine readiness to oppose government intervention has its limits.

The Smart Voting app is intended to help supporters of Russia’s opposition leader Alexei Navalny in this weekend’s parliamentary election.

Neither Apple nor Google has commented for this story.

Apple’s vague commitment to protecting the civil liberties of users is especially perfected because the company still insists that it needs to control the many swaths of software available on the iPhone. While developers like Epic Games pushing back against this “walled garden” approach, Apple still has control over what programs and apps are run on its devices. But as made clear by recent events in Russia, Apple’s strict control over its App Store could be abused by government authorities.

“Apple is trying to cook up operating system censorship, adding technology that can search our own phones for banned files,” warned Albert Fox Cahn, director of STOP, the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project. “But if one government can look for CSAM, another can look for religious texts and political discourse.”

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