ARTICLE 19 is seriously concerned about online censorship prior to the parliamentary elections in Russia, which took place between 17 and 19 September. Major tech companies Apple and Google have already demonstrated their readiness to cooperate with the Russian authorities by removing the popular Navalny app from their online store in Russia, following the request from the authorities. These actions violate users’ right to freedom of expression and information, which are crucial in the context of elections. ARTICLE 19 calls on the Russian authorities to cease its repressive censorship policies online and offline. We also urge Google and Apple in Russia to carefully review their in-country operational policies and challenge removal orders and demands from the Russian authorities.
“Tech companies in Russia must carefully review their in-country operational policies in light of the recent legislative and political developments,’ says Barbora Bukovska, ARTICLE 19’s Senior Director for Law and Policy. ‘They must challenge Russian authorities’ blocking and removal orders and take all necessary and lawful measures to ensure that they do not cause, contribute to or become complicit in human rights abuses.”
On the eve of the parliamentary elections in Russia, the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media (Roskomnadzor) demanded that two global technology companies, Apple and Google, remove the popular ‘Navalny’ mobile app from their online stores in Russia. According to available information, the app was deleted following a conversation with the United States ambassador to Russia in which the Russian authorities insisted that refusal to comply with the removal request would be treated as interference in the electoral process in their country. So far, Apple and Google have not issued any statement or any other reaction on this matter.
In addition, Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, owner of the popular social media app Telegram, announced on Friday, 17 September that his company blocked Navalny’s chatbot due to the ‘silence period’ rule in the federal election law.
The ‘Navalny’ app enabled supporters of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny to use it as part of their ‘Smart Voting’ strategy. Navalny’s party, Russia of the Future, is not registered in the country and had not been allowed to take part in the elections. However, Navalny’s supporters could engage in tactical voting by using the app and vote for candidates from other parties than United Russia, the ruling party, thereby reducing the number of its candidates winning seats in federal and regional parliaments.
The official request to block Navalny’s popular app (which had over 500,000 downloads in the Google store alone) is yet another step towards silencing dissenting voices online and limiting citizens’ right to access alternative sources of information during the election period. As ARTICLE 19 repeatedly pointed out, having effectively disabled a number of independent media and non-governmental organisations, the Kremlin attacked the last available space for public debate in Russia — social media, where millions of citizens obtained alternative information and a certain sense of political participation. The combination of a lack of free, pluralistic political competition and a level playing field for the election candidates, large-scale censorship and suppression of alternative voices, and violations of people’s voting rights has seriously compromised the integrity of these latest elections.
Furthermore, ARTICLE 19 considers the request to remove the ‘Navalny’ app from the Apple and Google online stores to be a clear indication of the broader pattern of tightening governmental control of online expression and over online companies operating in the Russian Federation. Over the last year, ARTICLE 19 has criticised an extensive legal framework enabling a total state capture of the online space in the Russian Federation. Amendments to several active laws adopted in the end of December 2020 extend the list of reasons for which online content or websites can be blacklisted and blocked, oblige social networks to comply with the overbroad content restrictions as well as to proactively monitor their content, and toughen administrative sanctions for non-compliance with the blocking orders. Another legislation, on the activities of foreign Internet companies, requires any website and/or a web-page with over 500,000 daily users based in the Russian Federation to establish a branch or open a representative office in Russia or set up a Russian legal entity (this provision will come into force on 1 January 2022). Sanctions for non-compliance include a full or partial limitation of access as well as withdrawal of links to those resources from online search results in Russia. Taken together, these legislative acts secure strict governmental control over Russian online space and could lead to the creation of a ‘digital iron curtain’. If foreign Internet companies choose to register in the Russian Federation, they will automatically become vulnerable to any illegitimate content removal request coming from the authorities. If they opt for non-compliance, access to their services could be blocked in the country.
ARTICLE 19 is seriously concerned that even before this legislation enters into force, major companies such as Apple and Google have already demonstrated their readiness to cooperate with the Russian authorities and follow their illegitimate and undemocratic requests, which constitute a flagrant violation of international human rights law.
ARTICLE 19 urges tech companies in Russia to carefully review their in-country operational policies, particularly in light of the recent developments in the country. Companies must challenge blocking and removal orders issued by Russian authorities. They must ensure that they do not cause, contribute to or become complicit in human rights abuses.
ARTICLE 19 reiterates its call upon the Russian authorities to repeal the laws that suppress online expression and activism and refrain from attempts to establish firm governmental control over Internet companies.