Russia restricts opposition election voting app from Apple App Store and Google Play Store

Mobile app store metrics from NetBlocks confirm the removal of a popular opposition election tracking app from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. The incident comes as Russia holds parliamentary elections from 17 to 19 September 2021.

The strategic voting application devised by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, titled simply “Navalny”, is now unavailable on the two leading Russian app markets but remains online in other observed countries.

How have the restrictions been implemented?

Metrics show that the applications have been withheld at the country level, such that they are no longer available in Apple and Google stores for the Russia market. The apps remain available in other countries.

Apple’s App Store is used by iOS devices including the company’s popular iPhone range of mobile phones. Google’s Play Store is used by mobile devices produced by several vendors that run the company’s Android operating system.

Google Play Store users in Russia now receive a notice when searching for the app

On Friday, sources confirmed on background that at least one of the U.S.-based companies implementing the restriction felt compelled to comply for fear that local staff could face legal action upon receipt of a takedown order from the Russian Federation.

What are the Russian authorities saying?

Apple transparency notice

As per a transparency notice issued to the app developer by Apple, Russia’s telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor has ordered the company to remove the app from the Russia App Store because it “includes content that is illegal in Russia.”

In the notice, Roskomnadzor cites election interference and extremist activity in accordance with Article 9 of the Federal Law of 25.07.2002 No. 114-FZ as grounds for the takedown.

How can users regain access to the app?

Users who had already downloaded the app prior to the app store takedowns will continue to be able to launch them, although no further updates will be possible.

Some users have been able to download the app by changing their app store region to a country other than Russia. However, this approach can lead to the loss of settings and may prevent future updates to other apps.

What is the context of Russia’s election app takedown?

While Russia views the takedown as a domestic matter, the act of compliance by two of the United States’ largest companies is likely to raise questions in both government and technical spheres.

Apple and Google now face renewed criticism over their walled-garden mobile app ecosystems, which hands over a degree of autonomy to governments that has traditionally been a user choice.

Voices in civil society have also been highly critical of the decision to comply with Russia’s order to take down the apps.

Previously:


Methodology

This report follows the NetBlocks Election Pathfinder Rapid Response methodology which defines a set of core principles, workflows and benchmarks for network measurement and evaluation during elections and referenda.

This report uses NetBlocks app analytics metrics which track the availability of apps by country and market demographics. App listings and downloads may be restricted by app publishers themselves or removals may be imposed by app store operators as detailed in the report.


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