24 September 2021
Big Tech companies that operate around the world have long promised to follow local laws and protect civil rights while doing business. These two aims sometimes conflict.
When Apple and Google recently agreed to remove an app at the request of the Russian government, it raised worries. It appears that the companies are more concerned with making money than protecting democratic rights.
The app is called Smart Voting. It was a tool for organizing political opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin before the elections last weekend. The ban has been sharply criticized by supporters of free elections and democracy.
Natalia Krapiva is with Access Now, an internet freedom group. "This is bad news for democracy and dissent all over the world," she said. "We expect to see other dictators copying Russia's tactics."
Technology companies that offer services like searches, social media and apps have long been in conflict with less-democratic countries. Apple, Google and other large companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook have grown stronger over the past decade. But government efforts in many countries to use that power for their own purposes has also grown.
Sascha Meinrath is a professor at Pennsylvania State University and studies online censorship. He said the act was a great symbol of "political oppression." He added that Google and Apple have increased the chances of something similar happening again.
Neither Apple nor Google answered interview requests from The Associated Press.
Google also denied access to documents on its online service Google Docs that listed candidates supported by Smart Voting. YouTube blocked similar videos.
One person with knowledge of the matter told AP that Google faced legal action by Russian officials if it failed to remove the app. Russian officials also threatened criminal charges against individual employees, the person said. The person also told AP that Russian police visited Google's Moscow offices last week to enforce a court order to block the app.
Google's own employees have reportedly criticized the company's decision to remove the app on employee message boards.
Apple has a "Commitment To Human Rights" on its website. A close read of that statement, however, suggests that when legal government orders and human rights are in conflict, the company will follow the government.
"...we respect national law..." the statement reads.
A recent report from the organization Freedom House found that worldwide internet freedom decreased for the fifth straight year. Internet freedom is under increasing threat as more nations arrest internet users for political speech.
At least 20 countries suspended internet access and 21 other countries blocked access to social media, the report found.
Big Tech companies have generally agreed to follow government demands to remove content to continue operating in these countries. Posts by those denying the Holocaust are blocked in Germany and other European countries where they are illegal, for example. And in Russia, opposition parties are censored.
The app's removal was widely denounced by Russian opposition politicians. Leonid Volkov is a top adviser to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He wrote on Facebook that the companies "bent to the Kremlin's blackmail." One Navalny ally said on Twitter that the politician's team is considering bringing legal action against the two companies.
It is possible that the companies could decide to stop operating in Russia. Kurt Opsahl is a lawyer with the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation. "If you want to take a principled stand on human rights and freedom of expression, then there are some hard choices you have to make on when you should leave the market," he said.
Russia is not a major market for Apple or Google's parent company Alphabet.
I'm Dan Novak.
Michael Liedtke and Barbara Ortutay reported this story for The Associated Press. Dan Novak adapted it for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.
Words in This Story
dissent — n. to publicly disagree with an official opinion, decision, or set of beliefs
tactic — n. an action or method that is planned and used to achieve a particular goal
censorship — adj. the system or practice of censoring books, movies, letters, etc.
blackmail — n. the crime of threatening to tell secret information about someone unless the person being threatened gives you money or does what you want
principle — adj. a moral rule or belief that helps you know what is right and wrong and that influences your actions