SACHA PFEIFFER The threats of election subversion in the United States probably sound more than familiar to people in Russia, where for years Putin has been consolidating his power through anti-democratic tactics and in the country's federal elections last weekend. Those tactics were once again on display.
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NEWS REPORT Independent vote-monitor Golos, says it's been made aware of more than 4000 possible instances of fraud in this election.
NEWS REPORT Observers say the goal was a high voter turnout to lend the election more legitimacy.
NEWS REPORT The Russian president is shown using a controversial online voting system, which critics say allows even more opportunity to manipulate results.
NEWS REPORT Victory for President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party comes in the wake of a clampdown that saw many opposition politicians and activists arrested or barred from running. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER In the run up to the elections, the country's opposition leaders attempted to use what little power they had to put up an electoral fight.
NEWS REPORT A smart voting app. It advised users on which candidates could potentially unseat the ruling party. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER The tool used to help voters vote strategically is an app built by the opposition and promoted by Navalny and his allies. But the night before polls opened, that app disappeared from Google and Apple's app stores.
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TANYA LOKOT There is a particular agency in the Russian state body called RoskamNadzor, which is the Internet regulator, also the media regulator. And so RoskamNadzor reached out. They said you have to remove the app.
SACHA PFEIFFER Tanya Lokot is a media scholar and author who's been following the drama in Russia
TANYA LOKOT For a long time, Google and Apple just ignored these requests, and so at a certain point, their local offices in Russia were visited by court martials who came along and said there is a court order we have that says that this app was created by an organization that has been outlawed in Russia as extremist and therefore everything they've created and published somewhere should also be removed.
SACHA PFEIFFER Ah, so some law enforcement intimidation.
TANYA LOKOT Yes, indeed. And, you know, usually the companies get these threats of fines and they've been fined multiple times for violating various Internet related regulations in Russia. And usually they just ignore this because technically the companies that deal with content moderation are based in the US. The legal entities in Russia are usually people who deal with sales or advertising. So they have nothing to do with the Google content or applications. But in this case, there were reports of direct threats of criminal prosecution for local staff, and I think that must have been what tipped the balance and tipped the scales where they said, 'OK, we need to maybe respond to this somehow.'
SACHA PFEIFFER What was the Russian government claiming was illegal about this app?
TANYA LOKOT Well, that's the interesting thing, because technically, if we consider the app on its own merits, it's not really doing anything illegal. All it's doing is offering voters information on absolutely legitimate candidates that are part of the ballots in all of the Russian regions.
SACHA PFEIFFER It's like a voter guide. These are the candidates, these are their positions.
TANYA LOKOT Exactly. The app is useful because it allows you to enter your voting districts and it'll tell you who the most likely candidate is. So it's kind of like a tactical voting thing or voter information thing. But none of this is illegal in Russia. And in fact, several of the pro-government parties or conglomerations, they also created very similar apps that were not pulled from the app stores
SACHA PFEIFFER After the smart voting app disappeared in Russia, a cat and mouse game of sorts broke out. Explain how this unfolded.
TANYA LOKOT Well, obviously, the Navalny associates were incredibly disappointed because they believe that both Google and Apple would uphold democratic ideals, and obviously they think of their app as a democratic tool. So they vowed to release the candidate list in any possible shape and form that they could. So the first thing they did, which was very easy to do, they just put it up as a Google doc and shared it on their social media accounts. And very quickly, RoskamNadzor came back to Google and said, oh, we want you to block these specific Google Docs as well, and Google did. They also posted a YouTube video, which was a live reading of the fascinating list of candidates and that in a few hours also got blocked. They just continued posting this list and sharing it in a thread on Twitter. They put it up on Reddit, they put it up on GitHub. They put it up on every available platform they could. They shared it on Telegram, so they basically just flooded the Internet and then obviously other people also re-shared all of these files and reposted them.
SACHA PFEIFFER Russia has tried to censor tech companies before. Was the pressure to get them to remove this app different than previous types of pressure?
TANYA LOKOT A lot of the previous censorship efforts, some of which were successful. LinkedIn, for instance, has been banned in Russia since 2016. Most of those censorship attempts deal with things like companies refusing to store data inside Russia or protest related content that they refused to take down. But this particular case is clearly a political issue where we see that it is because the app was created by opposition and opposition affiliated actors is why the state wanted it gone and that the companies conceded to removing this app. Based on this reasoning, to me seems like a major precedent.
SACHA PFEIFFER What's surprising about this is that Google is part of this global network initiative that pledges that when it makes decisions like these that might infringe on human rights, it will be transparent and explain its decision. But in this case, they seem not to have been transparent.
TANYA LOKOT Not at all. And I think that that's what many digital rights advocates found incredibly disappointing, is that there is this position that Google has taken where it says, yes, we vow to uphold human rights standards and to be very detailed in how we evaluate our decisions that we make, especially in states where people's rights are already under threat. And then they go and do something like this and don't even deign to provide an explanation.
SACHA PFEIFFER Since removing the smart voting app seems to have gotten the Russian government the outcome it wanted, it got the victory it wanted. Do you think that will incentivize the Russian government to keep using these tactics to pressure tech companies in the future?
TANYA LOKOT To me, what the most devious thing is, is that the Kremlin has really tried to frame this as election interference. So they're basically saying by allowing this app to be hosted on your app stores, you are contributing to Western interference in the Russian election, which seems ridiculous. But the mythical proportions that this idea of election interference has reached in the US, it's a very clever framing.
SACHA PFEIFFER This all sounds so dire. How would you advise tech companies and governments and our government to deal with this?
TANYA LOKOT That's the big question, isn't it? Sanctions are obviously part of the answer. In many cases, these sanctions have already been applied, but I think there's probably more that both companies and governments can do. Companies, for one, can at least release statements and refuse to cave to this pressure or at least announce why they did it and to explain the reasoning behind it. Just because a certain country has a set of laws doesn't mean that everybody should abide by these laws, because very often these laws couldn't be further away from what we actually talk about when we talk about justice, human rights, digital rights, personal security, where the law is clearly just aimed at ensuring that the state is able to control every aspect of our lives.
SACHA PFEIFFER Tanya, thank you very much.
TANYA LOKOT Thank you.
SACHA PFEIFFER Tanya Lokot is a media scholar and associate professor of digital media and society at Dublin City University and author of the book Beyond the Protest Square Digital Media and Augmented Dissent, which came out earlier this year. Coming up, the 24 words being used to stifle Russian journalists. This is On the Media.