Freedom we believe has its own limitations, and in the media world stringent rules are set to prevent abuse and misinformation among other things. Major renowned tech companies around the world have in time past agreed to align with local laws as well as protect civil rights while making their impact known, it is hence no brainer that laws are set for control and prevent abuse. But what happens when dictatorial regimes around the world stifle opposition and dissenting voices without rights of say? Should tech companies feel intimated by this misnomer? Definitely Not.
But there are worries and concerns as two of the biggest tech companies in the world, Apple and Google obviously capitulated to the dictates of the Russian Government by removing from their app store a political opposition app that the authorities in Russia feel threatened about. It calls to question the rationality of the decisions of the tech companies, bowing to undemocratic edicts at the detriment of the rights of their users, to maintain their consistent profit flow.
The app known as ‘Smart Voting’ is an opposition tool to disseminate information ahead of elections that took place over the weekend. The app was seen by the government of Russia as a tool of attack on President Vladimir Putin by pro government musings and thus, the tech companies acceding to the government demands may be complicit in gauging free expression.
“This is bad news for democracy and dissent all over the world,” said Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel for Access Now, an internet freedom group. “We expect to see other dictators copying Russia’s tactics.”
Less democratic nations around the world will always attempt to shut down opposition but it would be more worrisome if powerful companies like Apple, Google, and other major companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook who have grown more powerful over the past decade, to keep bowing to those uncanny demands from dictatorial governments.
“Now this is the poster child for political oppression,” said Sascha Meinrath, a Penn State University professor who studies online censorship issues. Google and Apple “have bolstered the probability of this happening again.”
There were reports that Google had been on the tight rope with legal demands by Russian regulators amidst veiled threats of its employee’s criminal prosecutions if the company fails to comply with the directives of the government. It was also reported that the Russian Police had visited Google’s office in Moscow last week to enforce a local court order to block the app.
Even employees of Google seem to be disillusioned with the actions of the tech firm as they have reportedly lashed out at the company for caving in to Vladmir Putin’s power show. They had posted subtle shaded and internal messages with images criticizing the app’s removal.
Apple on its own, despite posting a “Commitment to Human Rights” statement on its website laced it with a worrying but: that the company will prefer to obey the government when there is a decision to chose between legal government and human rights.
Part of the statement reads:
“Where national law and international human rights standards differ, we follow the higher standard. Where they are in conflict, we respect national law while seeking to respect the principles of internationally recognized human rights.”
The removal of the app was widely condemned by opposition politicians, prominent among them was Leonid Volkov, a top strategist to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who opined on Facebook that the companies “bent to the Kremlin’s blackmail.”
Another of Navalny’s, ally Ivan Zhdanov on Twitter, while mocking the move declared that the opposition will consider suing the two companies. “Expectations: the government turns off the internet. Reality: the internet, in fear, turns itself off.”, he said.
There is a strong possibility that the incident may force the two companies to reconsider their operational commitments in Russia. It would be recalled that Google had in 2010 pulled its plug off mainland China when the Communist government began the censoring on search results and videos on YouTube. It won’t hence become a surprise if something similar happens.
Kurt Opsahl, General counsel for the digital rights group, Electronic Frontier Foundation furious with the decision of Apple and Google said of the new development:
“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.