Google, Apple Accused of ‘Political Censorship’ After Removing Voting App as Russian Polls Open

Apple and Google removed a tactical voting app from its online store on Friday that was linked to Kremlin critic and jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny as polls opened across Russia for three days of voting in a parliamentary election.

The move was prompted after Russian authorities put pressure on the U.S. tech giants to remove the app from their stores, saying a refusal to do so would be treated as meddling in its parliamentary election while also threatening the companies with fines.

The app is part of the “Smart Voting” project, which was created by a team of Navalny supporters. It was designed to organize a tactical voting campaign to channel opposition votes to United Russia—President Vladimir Putin’s ruling political party.

Ivan Zhdanov, an ally of Navalny, said on social media that the move by Apple and Google to remove the app is “shameful” and amounts to “political censorship.”

“Removing the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship,” Zhdanov wrote on Twitter. “Russia’s authoritarian government and propaganda will be thrilled.”

Both companies have not immediately responded to a request for comment, although Zhdanov linked a statement on Friday that appears to be from Apple, saying the app was removed from its store because it is illegal in Russia.

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

The parliamentary election this weekend is widely seen as an important part of Putin’s efforts to cement his grip on power ahead of the 2024 presidential election, for which control of the parliament is key.

Earlier this month, Russian authorities also blocked access to the Smart Voting website, which aims to identify candidates who are in the strongest position in the Sept. 19 election in order to channel opposition votes, although some internet users can still access it.

In an Instagram post earlier this month, Navalny’s team said that the move to block the Smart Voting website shows that Russian authorities are “panicking” and “afraid.”

Navalny, meanwhile, published a step-by-step guide on his Instagram Stories, detailing how supporters could attempt to bypass the block.

Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny
Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny takes part in a rally to mark the 5th anniversary of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov’s murder and to protest against proposed amendments to the country’s constitution, in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 29, 2020. (Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters)

In June, the Moscow City Court outlawed Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption and a network of his regional offices as extremist organizations. The ruling barred people associated with the groups from seeking public office and exposed them to lengthy prison terms.

Navalny, Putin’s most determined political challenger, was arrested in January upon his return from Germany, where he had spent five months recovering from a nerve agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin—accusations that Russian officials reject. He was handed a 2 1/2-year prison sentence in February for violating terms of a suspended sentence stemming from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that he denounced as politically driven.

Putin, 68, has been in power—either as president or prime minister—for more than two decades. He pushed through constitutional changes last year that enable him to run again in 2024 when his current six-year term ends. The changes would allow him to potentially hold onto power until 2036.

Putin earlier this year signed legislation barring members of groups deemed extremist, including allies of Navalny, from running for office. The move, critics say, was designed to stamp out opposition to United Russia. The Kremlin denies the crackdown is political.

Isabel van Brugen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.