Big Tech grapples with Russian internet crackdown during election

Big Tech companies’ human rights policies have been stress-tested in the run-up to Russian parliamentary elections, as the Kremlin cracks down on a broad range of content.

The Russian government is increasingly pressuring American technology companies to take down content from their platforms with threats of fines, throttling and criminal prosecution for local staff ahead of this weekend’s parliamentary election. 

The breadth of the censorship demands, backed by recently-passed laws targeting content deemed to be illegal, are challenging the internet companies’ commitments to human rights principles and internet freedom, experts say.

“Russia realized long ago the liberating power of digital technologies and digital platforms and how they can be used for anti-government protests,” said Baurzhan Rakhmetov, an assistant professor at Kazguu University in Kazakhstan and an expert in Russian internet censorship. “So it has passed restrictive laws targeting internet companies that silence opposition voices and political speech.”

On Friday, after weeks of resistance, Apple and Google complied with an order to remove an app developed by Russian activists supporting jailed Kremlin critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny from their Russian app stores after the country accused the companies of election interference.

Navalny ally Ivan Zhdanov described the tech companies’ removal of the app as a “shameful act of political censorship.”

Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment.

Since mid-August, Russia’s federal censorship agency Roskomnadzor threatened Apple and Google with fines if they didn’t remove the “Smart Vote” app, which encouraged users to engage in tactical voting against the ruling United Russia party in the parliamentary elections. In notices sent to the technology companies, the censorship body stated that any involvement in the activities of an extremist organization is considered a felony

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation nonprofit, along with his movement’s headquarters, were categorized by the Russian government as extremist organizations since May, as previously reported by the Russian news agency TASS.

Russian service members of the Baltic Fleet forces of the Russian Navy visit a polling station in Baltiysk, Russia on Friday.Vitaly Nevar / Reuters

Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said during a press call Friday that the Kremlin did not like the Smart Vote project, which he described as “just another absolutely provocative attempt that actually harms voters.” 

He said that Apple and Google were following the “letter and spirit of the law” by deleting the apps from the Russian stores. 

The takedown of Navalny’s app is the culmination of months of tension between the Silicon Valley-headquartered tech companies and Russian regulators. Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google agree to comply with local laws in countries where they operate but also have their own policies to enshrine internationally recognized human rights standards, as laid out by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. These principles state that in cases where there are conflicts between local laws and human rights commitments, companies should challenge those laws to promote international human rights standards. 

International human rights experts said that the app takedown set a worrying precedent.

“Navalny’s only crime is he’s an opposition figure,” said David Kaye, professor of law at the University of California Irvine, and former U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression. “He is really an example of Russia and other countries expanding the definition of extremism beyond recognition. It’s preposterous.”

Russia begins voting in elections ruling United Russia party expected to win

Sept. 17, 202100:58

“The app takedown is really concerning,” he added, pointing to the “problematic” lack of transparency from Google and Apple on how they reached their decision. 

“We don’t know the kind of human rights impact assessment the companies have done in the face of this kind of pressure. What does their analysis look like and what has their pushback been like?”

Kaye added that Google and Apple both have offices and employees in Russia, which means the companies have “set themselves up for a kind of hostage-taking situation.”

“If they don’t comply their staff could face real harm, whether harms or arrests,” he said.

Daphne Keller, who directs the program on platform regulation at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, said what’s happening in Russia is part of a pattern of similar internet restrictions taking place around the world, including India and Turkey. 

“There are two stages to it. One is to pass laws requiring platforms to do some things to signify their compliance up front — before they even receive a takedown request,” she said, pointing to laws that require companies to have a local office with employees or data stored in the country. “Then there’s the separate stage of sending takedown requests using new laws that give them additional teeth and penalties they can now bring to bear.”

The companies have resisted complying with government orders in some cases, leading to several significant fines and other penalties. 

In February 2020, Russia fined Facebook and Twitter about $63,000 each for failing to store the data of Russian users on local servers, as specified by a controversial law that first took effect in 2015. Both companies were fined again, along with Google, for continuing to violate the data storage law last month. 

In March, Roskomnadzor throttled Twitter, making it painfully slow to use the app for some users, for what it said was a failure to remove illegal content including incitements to suicide, extremist content and child sexual exploitation material. The move followed a crackdown by the Russian censor on tweets that helped mobilize opposition demonstrations, amid mass protests following Navalny’s imprisonment in February.

The following month, a court in Moscow fined Twitter about $117,000 for failing to take down tweets encouraging minors to take part in unauthorized protests.

In July, President Vladimir Putin signed a law requiring foreign social media giants to open offices in Russia. 

This week, days before the election, Facebook, Twitter and Telegram were issued more fines for failing to remove illegal content. 

Twitter declined to comment. Facebook initially responded, asked for a list of questions and a deadline, and then failed to meet the deadline or respond to further inquiries. 

Two Facebook employees, who asked that their names not be used because they are not authorized to speak publicly, said that the company has been leaning on international human rights principles to push back on takedown requests related to Navalny, including including posts related to his voting app, but they expected that Apple and Google’s compliance would create more pressure for the social media giant. 

“No matter what we do, Russia has the legal tools to throttle us,” one employee said.

Silicon Valley companies have long taken down content at the request of governments. According to Twitter’s latest Transparency Report for the second half of 2020, Russian officials filed 6,351 takedown requests, but Twitter acted in only a quarter of them. 

Facebook’s latest transparency report shows that the company restricted 1,868 items at the request of Roskomnadzor, although it does not disclose the number of requests made that Facebook did not act upon. 

Keller said the transparency reports don’t go far enough. They might list the number of items removed, but they fail to reveal the nature of the items. 

“We don’t know if the requests are legitimate or problematic,” she said. “They could be silencing another political party. Also we don’t know what demands might have come from governments less formally.”

Kaye said that the tech companies’ response to Russian internet restrictions would be watched closely by other regimes seeking to take more control of online speech.

“It’s a dictator’s playbook,” Kaye said. “Authoritarian governments around the world will be asking ‘Well, did this work there?’”

One of the Facebook employees agreed. Russia, the employee said, was a relatively low-stakes market for the company, but one that large, strategically important markets might be looking to emulate. 

“It’s an interesting test case, and countries like India are watching.”

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