Why are Google and Apple silent on Russian censorship? | the Internet
On October 19, Russia concluded a three-day parliamentary election windfall, which sparked much controversy. Not only were there allegations of ballot stuffing and repression against the opposition, but also of falsification of the final results, which unsurprisingly enabled President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party to retain its majority in the Duma. of state.
Among the various tactics used by the Russian authorities to intimidate the opposition was internet censorship. While there have long been attempts to control online spaces in Russia under the banner of “Internet sovereignty,” the recent election-related jaunt should worry not only Russians but the international community as a whole.
In the weeks leading up to the vote, the Russian government pressured Apple and Google to remove a popular vote app from their online stores. The app was created by the team of imprisoned opposition leader Alexey Navalny and was intended to help opposition voters vote for whoever had the best chance of defeating the United Russia candidate in a constituency given.
This voting strategy had already given good results in local elections and could have had a significant effect on the results of parliamentary elections. However, Google and Apple have joined in the Russian government’s efforts to quell organized opposition to the elections by making the app inaccessible.
Media reports said both companies bowed to pressure when the government turned to threats of criminal prosecution against their Russian-based staff.
It has been over a month since the election and the two companies have yet to talk about what happened. Given their public commitments to respect human rights and free speech, and the fact that their employees were essentially held hostage on a single app, some sort of backlash would have made sense. In the past, such coercive measures have elicited strong reactions from the tech giants.
In 2016, for example, Brazilian authorities requested private data from Facebook, which it refused to provide. When they later arrested Diego Dzodan, Facebook’s vice president for Latin America, the company publicly condemned him. Apple and Google have yet to release similar statements.
In fact, it wasn’t until October 9 that Google restored access to the censored app, while Apple hasn’t yet.
It was also disappointing that there had been no public reaction from the United States government, where these two companies are based. The US State Department declined to comment directly on the matter, releasing broad statements about free speech instead. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly just days after the election, US President Joe Biden vowed to “defend” democratic values ââin his global diplomacy, but did not speak out against growing internet censorship by Russia or elsewhere in the world. world.
We must recognize that silence is complicity. It emboldens censors and makes the online platforms that have become the basis of civic engagement even less secure for activists, NGOs, journalists and anyone who dares to criticize their governments.
Arguments about “Internet sovereignty” propelled by various governments, like that of Russia, fail to convince that growing Internet restrictions are meant to protect the population, when they are clearly designed to maintain regimes. repressive and ruling dictators and maintain the political status quo.
In recent years, the Russian government has built a vast technical infrastructure to tighten its grip on the Russian internet, which has allowed it to force online services into submission. Earlier this year, for example, Russian authorities strangled Twitter using deep packet inspection technology in response to its refusal to delete 3,000 messages they considered “illegal.”
Russia has also enacted a set of restrictive laws, which can be used to intimidate platforms into providing sensitive user data to the government or block it if they do not acquiesce. In 2016, LinkedIn was blocked after violating one of these laws, forcing platforms to store Russian users’ data on servers based in Russia.
While the Russian government has not been able to gain absolute control over the internet and many people are able to circumvent the restrictions, these tactics are having a destabilizing effect on online spaces and on society alike. inside and outside the country. Blocking services or websites disrupts the normal work of civil society, businesses and anyone who uses the Internet to access information. It also violates people’s rights to freedom of expression and political organization.
The situation is worsening not only in Russia, but also in neighboring Belarus, where in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential elections, the government of President Alexander Lukashenko cut off internet access for several days to cover up the brutal crackdown on people. who were protesting against the elections. results. In other countries of the world, repressive regimes and autocrats are also emboldened to censor the Internet. Online restrictions have worsened in India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Brazil, Jordan and other states around the world.
To curb the growing threat of internet censorship, we need transparency from the big tech companies about how these political demands are being handled and how they will make sure they don’t give in every time to the detriment of their users. Commitments to human rights and freedom of expression must be translated from public relations rhetoric into real corporate policies. Otherwise, it would mean users would be left to fend for themselves to defend their rights on the internet against the growing power of censors.
Democratic governments must also take action. They must take a clear and unequivocal position against international corporations that are forced to become tools of oppression and come up with strong policies to help prevent this. The upcoming Democracy Summit, hosted by Biden in December, can be a great place to start this conversation and take concrete action to protect internet freedom from autocratic encroachment.
If we do not act now, it may soon be too late. Precedents set today may become the order of the day tomorrow, compromising internet freedom for all of us.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.