Silicon Valley companies might need to offer an explanation after a voting app created by allies of imprisoned Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny vanished from Google and Apple stores on Friday. 

The Russian people head to the polls on Friday to elect a new parliament. The vote lasts three days and the current party in charge, the United Russia, is anticipating a win. The app disappeared when voting started across Russia for the elections, raising concerns about what the reasoning was behind the move. 

Allies of Navalny, President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest domestic opponent, planned to use the mobile app to organise a tactical voting campaign to deal a blow to United Russia,” Reuters reported.

As The Washington Post reported, “Roskomnadzor, the Russian censorship agency, had threatened to fine the Silicon Valley giants if the app, which encourages voters to cast ballots against the party of President Vladimir Putin, was not removed. The censorship agency argued that the companies were interfering in the nation’s electoral processes.”

The top companies appeared to cave to Russian authorities instead of standing up to them, upsetting opposition allies and digital rights advocates around the world. 

Natalia Krapiva, a digital rights attorney with Access Now, told The Post it was obvious Apple and Google “took this decision under pressure. But the companies owe the Russian people an explanation.”

On Friday, Apple also got rid of its Private Relay feature in iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and macOS Monterey for users in Russia. 

According to an August report from Apple Insider: 

Introduced at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June as part of iCloud+, Apple’s premium cloud storage service, Private Relay prevents third-party tracking of IP addresses, user location and other details by routing internet requests through two separate relays operated by two different entities. Internet connections configured to pass through Private Relay use anonymous IP addresses that map to a user’s region but do not reveal their exact location or identity, Apple says.

The feature can essentially protect a user’s data and prevent the government from watching someone’s internet activity. It is unavailable in countries such as China, Belarus, Colombia, and Saudi Arabia, as well.

As the Associated Press reported, U.S. Ambassador John Sullivan was summoned by Russia’s Foreign Ministry on the topic last week. On Thursday, Apple and Google representatives were invited to attend a meeting at the upper house of Russia’s parliament, the Federation Council, per the outlet. “The Council’s commission on protecting state sovereignty said in a statement afterward that Apple agreed to cooperate with Russian authorities,” it noted.

The AP added: 

Google was forced to remove the app because it faced legal demands by regulators and threats of criminal prosecution in Russia, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter who also said Russian police officers visited Google’s offices in Moscow on Monday to enforce a court order to block the app. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday the presidential administration “definitely, of course” welcomes the companies’ decision to remove the app, because it complies with Russian laws. Peskov said that the app was “outside the law” in Russia.

Putin critic Alexei Navalny was sentenced to prison after returning to Moscow from Germany where he was undergoing treatment for poisoning from a nerve agent that he blames on the Kremlin. The Kremlin has denied any responsibility for his poisoning, but United States intelligence officials have “concluded with high confidence that Navalny was poisoned last year with a banned nerve agent called Novichok by the Russian security services,” according to Politico.

Navalny engaged in a hunger strike in prison in protest against his treatment and, when he began to suffer, demanded to be able to see his own doctor. 

During a court appearance in April, he spoke of Putin, saying, “I would like to say that your king is naked, and more than one little boy is shouting about it — it is now millions of people who are already shouting about it. It is quite obvious. Twenty years of incompetent rule have come to this: there is a crown sliding from his ears.” 

“Your naked king wants to rule until the end, he doesn’t care about the country, he is clung to power and wants to rule indefinitely,” he said.

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