Sun, 24 Oct 2021

Popular messaging app Telegram is suspending all chat bots used in the Russian elections campaign, in another blow to jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny's Smart Voting initiative after Apple and Google removed the election-guide app from their stores.

Telegram founder Pavel Durov announced late on September 17 that the service would abide by Russia's "election silence," a law practiced in other countries that prohibits campaigning during the elections.

"We consider this practice legitimate...and we plan to limit the functioning of bots associated with election campaigns," said the Russian founder of one of the world's most popular messaging apps.

Russians are voting September 17-19 for the lower house of parliament, or State Duma, as well as local polls in dozens of regions, including regional assembly and gubernatorial elections.

Navalny's team promoted Smart Voting as a way for voters opposed to President Vladimir Putin to identify candidates who have the best chance to defeat candidates from the ruling pro-Kremlin United Russia party -- even if that alternative candidate comes from one of the other main established political parties.

As the vote kicked off on September 17, the Smart Voting app disappeared from the Apple and Google online stores in what Navalny associates slammed as censorship and the tech giants bowing to Kremlin pressure.

Navalny's team had created a Smart Voting chat bot on Telegram, which became one of its main electoral tools.

In recent months, authorities have unleashed a sweeping crackdown against Navalny's allies and engaged in a massive effort to suppress Smart Voting.

About 50 websites run by Navalny's team have been blocked and dozens of regional offices have been closed after authorities labelled his political network and anti-corruption foundation an "extremist organization," which barred the politician's allies from participating in elections.

In making the decision to suspend the Smart Voting bot, Durov said it was based on Apple and Google's move to block it from their online app stores in Russia.

"The blocking of applications by Apple and Google is setting a dangerous precedent that will affect freedom of speech in Russia and around the world," he said.

He said Telegram, like other mobile apps, relies on Apple's and Google's ecosystems and support to function. He said the two tech giants this year already demanded Telegram remove information to comply with laws in other countries

The U.S. tech companies "threatened to exclude Telegram from the catalogs of Google Play and App store applications" if it didn't comply, Durov said.

"Now, judging by their blocking of the Smart Voting application, this practice has spread to Russia. Changes in Apple's and Google's policy will inevitably affect Telegram, as they, as the creators of the two major mobile operating systems, are at the top of the information distribution food chain and can dictate the rules of the game to developers like us," he said.

'This is sad but expected: I have written more than once that the Apple and Google oligopoly is a threat to free speech,' he added.

There was no immediate comment from Apple or Google.

AFP, citing sources familiar with the matter, reported Google's and Apple's decision was taken under pressure from the Russian authorities, including threats of serious criminal charges and arrest of local staff.

One source said Apple employees faced 'bullying tactics and threats of arrest,' while another noted Google had acted under 'extraordinary duress.'

Russian authorities had repeatedly threatened the two tech giants with fines if they didn't block the app --officials even tried to throttle secondary servers, and Internet traffic routers to try to hamper access to the software.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Google and Apple were merely conforming with 'the letter and spirit' of Russian law by removing the app.

'There were legal requirements. This [app] is illegal on the territory of our country. Both platforms received a notification and, in accordance with the letter and spirit of the law, they made such a decision, most likely,' Peskov was quoted as saying by the TASS news agency.

On the eve of the elections, regulators also temporarily blocked the Google Doc app as Navalny's team released its slate of Smart Voting endorsements.

With reporting by TASS and AFP

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

More Moscow News

Access More

Sign up for Moscow News

a daily newsletter full of things to discuss over drinks.and the great thing is that it's on the house!