Apple and Google’s grip on the mobile economy makes them prime targets


SAN FRANCISCO (awp/afp) – As Apple and Google succumb to political pressure, the entirety of mobile internet falls into the hands of authoritarian regimes: Here is the bitter note made by human rights advocates Friday after a major downturn in tech giants forced Moscow to withdraw a request opposition.

The two groups in California have removed from their download platforms a mobile application designed by the movement of imprisoned opponent Alexei Navalny to inform voters about opposition candidates for President Vladimir Putin.

The iPhone maker ended up succumbing to “harassment and threats of arrest” against local employees, according to a source familiar with the matter. Google also ceded “under unprecedented pressure,” according to another source.

Only users who have already downloaded it can continue to use it, but without an update.

“App stores are the new frontier of censorship,” said Natalia Krapeva, a technology attorney at the NGO Access Now.

“We are seeing a new attack on digital rights, a new way of undermining infrastructure security and freedom of expression. This is very worrying.”

With virtually no anti-Putin candidates allowed to run for the legislative elections this weekend, Mr. Navalny’s supporters have developed a strategy known as “smart voting”, aimed at supporting the most disadvantaged candidate in the face of difficult legislative elections. The party in power, United Russia.

The application made it possible to know which competitor would vote in each constituency. In the past, this approach has had some success, especially in Moscow in 2019.


In a country where the media is under great pressure and opponents threaten with imprisonment or worse, “people consider the internet giants to be the last spaces of freedom, they are grateful to them and they depend on them,” asserts Natalia Krapeva, who is in regular contact with Russian organizations.

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She continued, “They feel really betrayed by this sudden decision, the morning of the start of the elections, without any explanation.”

The pressure has intensified in recent weeks. Russian courts have fined Facebook, Twitter and Google for refusing to remove content, and Moscow has accused Google and Apple of “electoral interference”.

But companies have so far resisted. “This is a catastrophic precedent for the whole world, and not only for Russia,” Natalia Krapeva laments.

For some activists, the problem wouldn’t be so great if Apple and Google weren’t dominant.

The Google (Android) platform accounts for about 85% of the world’s mobile internet access, while the Apple (iOS) platform accounts for about 15%.

Therefore, when they give up the land, they give up all the land. Moreover, the Apple brand does not allow downloading apps outside of its own App Store.

Evan Greer of the Internet rights group Fight for the Future argued: “The authoritarian performance of the Apple platform makes it easier for authoritarian regimes to stifle democratic initiatives.”

Unless the company amends its regulations, “the App Store will remain, for the government, an easy way to stifle” any hint of dissent, he continues.



In theory, Silicon Valley companies have made it their mission to defend free speech and human rights, in addition to their financial goals.

The reality is more complicated, especially in China, where Western social networks are blocked, in Russia but also in India, for example, where the government has introduced new rules to force platforms to deliver certain confidential information to them.

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Observers warn that Russia’s tactics risk inspiring other countries. “Look at emerging dictatorships, like Hungary: They can use these kinds of tools as well,” said Catherine Stoner, a professor of political science at Stanford University.

Therefore, technology companies “must think about how they operate in these markets, and to what extent they accept undermining freedoms.”

For Natalia Krapiva, by virtue of their presence, Google and Apple have responsibilities. It regrets that the platforms do not officially express themselves, leaving the Russian authorities to claim victory.

“They must tell the truth: the orders received violate international law and were carried out under duress,” she wrote on Twitter.

“They are under attack from authoritarian governments, but they must not forget that millions of users depend on them.”

juj-jm / vmt / len

Brooke Vargas

"Devoted gamer. Webaholic. Infuriatingly humble social media trailblazer. Lifelong internet expert."

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