On September 19, Russia concluded a three-day parliamentary election bonanza, which caused much controversy. Not only were there allegations of ballot stuffing and a crackdown on the opposition but also of tampering with the final results, which unsurprisingly allowed President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party to keep its majority in the State Duma.
Among the various tactics the Russian authorities employed to intimidate the opposition was internet censorship. While there have long been attempts to control online spaces in Russia under the banner of “internet sovereignty”, the recent election-related escapade should worry not only Russians but also the international community as a whole.
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In the weeks leading up to the vote, the Russian government pressured Apple and Google to remove a popular voting app from their online stores. The app was put together by the team of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny and was meant to help opposition-minded voters cast their ballot in favour of whoever had the best chances of defeating the United Russia candidate in a given district.
This voting strategy had previously given good results in local elections and could have had a significant effect on the parliamentary election results. However, Google and Apple joined the Russian government’s efforts to suppress organised opposition in the elections by making the app inaccessible.
According to media reports, the two companies caved in to pressure when the government turned to threats of criminal prosecution of their Russia-based staff.
It has been more than a month since the elections and the two companies are yet to speak out about what happened. Given their public commitments to respect human rights and freedom of expression, and the fact that their employees were essentially held hostage over a single app, some kind of a reaction would have made sense. In the past, such coercive measures have elicited sharp responses from Tech giants.
In 2016, for example, the Brazilian authorities requested private data from Facebook, which it refused to give. When they subsequently arrested Diego Dzodan, Facebook’s vice president for Latin America, the company publicly condemned it. Apple and Google are yet to issue similar statements.
In fact, it was only on October 9 that Google restored access to the censored app, while Apple is yet to do so.
It was also disappointing that there was no public reaction from the United States government, where both of these companies are based. The US State Department declined to comment directly on the matter, instead issuing broad statements about freedom of expression. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly just a few days after the election, US President Joe Biden promised to “champion” democratic values in his global diplomacy, but failed to call out the growing censorship of the internet in Russia or elsewhere in the world.
We have to recognise that silence is complicity. It emboldens censors and makes online platforms that have become the basis for civic engagement even less safe for activists, NGOs, journalists, and all those who dare criticise their governments.
Arguments about “internet sovereignty” propelled by various governments, like Russia’s, fail to convince that increasing restrictions on the internet are meant to protect the people, when they clearly are designed to keep repressive regimes and dictators in power and uphold the political status quo.
Over the past few years, the Russian government has built a vast technical infrastructure to tighten its grip on the Russian internet, which has enabled it to force online services into submission. Earlier this year, for example, the Russian authorities throttled Twitter with the help of deep packet inspection technology in response to its refusal to take down 3,000 posts they deemed “unlawful”.
Russia has also enacted a set of restrictive legislation, which can be used to bully platforms into providing sensitive user data to the government or block them if they do not acquiesce. In 2016, LinkedIn was blocked after it failed to comply with one of these laws, requiring platforms to store Russian users’ data on servers based in Russia.
While the Russian government has been unable to achieve absolute control over the internet and many people are able to circumvent restrictions, these tactics have a destabilising effect on online spaces and on society both inside and outside the country. Blocking services or websites disrupts the normal work of civil society, businesses and everyone else who uses the internet to access information. It also undermines people’s rights to free expression and political organising.
The situation is getting worse not only in Russia, but also in neighbouring Belarus, where in the aftermath of the presidential elections in 2020, President Alexander Lukashenko’s government disrupted access to the internet for several days to cover up the brutal crackdown on people protesting the election results. In other countries around the world, repressive regimes and autocrats are also getting bolder in censoring the internet. Online restrictions have worsened in India, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Brazil, Jordan and other states around the world.
To curb the growing threat of internet censorship, we need transparency from Big Tech companies on how such political demands are being dealt with and how they will ensure they will not cave in to them each time, to the detriment of their users. Commitments to human rights and freedom of expression need to be translated from PR rhetoric to actual corporate policies. Otherwise, it would mean that users are left on their own to fend for their internet rights against the growing power of censors.
There also needs to be action taken by democratic governments. They need to make a clear and unequivocal stand against international companies being forced to become tools of oppression and come up with solid policies to help prevent that. The upcoming democracy summit, hosted by Biden in December, can be a great venue to start this conversation and take concrete steps to protect internet freedom from autocratic encroachment.
If we do not act now, it may soon be too late. Precedents set today may turn into the order of the day tomorrow, undermining internet freedom for us all.
Editor’s note: The article has been updated with the correct date for the end of the Russian legislative elections.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.