MOSCOW — Apple and Google removed an app meant to coordinate protest voting in this weekend’s Russian elections from the country on Friday, a blow to the opponents of President Vladimir V. Putin and a display of Silicon Valley’s limits when it comes to resisting crackdowns on dissent around the world.
The decisions came after Russian authorities, which claim the app is illegal, threatened to prosecute local employees of Apple and Google — a sharp escalation in the Kremlin’s campaign to rein in the country’s largely uncensored internet. A person familiar with Google’s decision said the authorities had named specific individuals who would face prosecution, prompting it to remove the app.
The person declined to be identified for fear of angering the Russian government. Google has more than 100 employees in the country.
Apple did not respond to phone calls, emails or text messages seeking comment.
The app was created and promoted by allies of the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who were hoping to use it to consolidate the opposition vote in each of Russia’s 225 electoral districts. It disappeared from the two technology platforms just as voting got underway in the three-day parliamentary election, in which Mr. Putin’s United Russia party — in a carefully stage-managed system — holds a commanding advantage.
Mr. Navalny’s team reacted with outrage to the decision, suggesting the companies had made a damaging concession to the Russians. “Removing the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship,” an aide to Mr. Navalny, Ivan Zhdanov, said on Twitter. “Russia’s authoritarian government and propaganda will be thrilled.”
The decisions also drew harsh condemnation from free-speech activists in the West. “The companies are in a really difficult position but they have put themselves there,” David Kaye, a former United Nations official responsible for investigating freedom of expression issues, said in an interview. “They are de facto carrying out an element of Russian repression. Whether it’s justifiable or not, it’s complicity and the companies need to explain it.”
The extraordinary pressure on Google and Apple is an indication of the threat the Kremlin sees in Mr. Navalny’s “smart-voting” effort and the growing role technology plays as an instrument of political power. United Russia’s approval ratings in state-run polls have slumped to around 30 percent, compared with 40 percent ahead of the last parliamentary election, in 2016. A consolidation of the opposition vote could defeat United Russia candidates in competitive districts, since only a simple majority is required to win.
Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, argued that the app was illegal in Russia when asked about it on Friday on his regular call with journalists; Mr. Navalny’s movement was outlawed as extremist this summer. “Both platforms have been notified and in accordance with the law they made these decisions, as it seems,” he said.
Maintaining open, uncensored access to their services, especially in authoritarian countries, is becoming one of the most vexing challenges for American tech companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter. In countries such as India, Myanmar and Turkey, the authorities are increasingly pressuring the companies to censor certain political speech, or ordering internet outages to block access to the web.
Civil society groups have warned that forcing the companies to conform to a patchwork of laws and regulations risks creating a more fractured internet, where access to information and products will depend on where people are. The companies must weigh the value of having their services available in a country like Russia, where they are seen as more independent than local technology platforms, against the costs of leaving altogether, as Google has done in China.
The pressure on Silicon Valley to block certain content on their platforms is not just coming from more authoritarian governments. In the United States and Europe, policymakers want the companies to do more to address hate speech, misinformation and other toxic content. Republicans in the United States argue that they are being censored online.
In Russia, the national internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, has repeatedly demanded that the companies remove certain content, on pain of fines or restrictions on access to their products. The government says that American internet companies are meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs by allowing anti-Kremlin activists to use their platforms freely.
The Russian government had been increasingly blunt in recent days about its willingness to use threats of arrest to prevent the use of the app. “With the participation of Apple and Google, specific crimes are being committed, the scale of which may only increase in the coming days,” Vladimir Dzhabarov, a member of Russia’s upper house of Parliament, said on Thursday. “Individuals contributing to their parent companies’ evasion of responsibility on the territory of the Russian Federation will be punished.”
It remains to be seen whether Friday’s concession by Apple and Google turns into a watershed moment in how forcefully American tech giants are willing to resist Kremlin pressure. Amid Russia’s crackdown on dissent this year, the most popular Silicon Valley platforms have remained freely accessible, allowing journalists and activists to continue to get their message out. On YouTube, for instance, the Navalny team’s investigations of corruption in the Russian elite regularly get millions of views.
But Friday’s move could embolden the Kremlin as well as governments elsewhere in the world to use the threat of prosecuting employees to gain leverage against the companies. It presents a test of Silicon Valley ideals around free expression and an open internet, balanced not only against profit but against the safety of their workers.
Removals of Facebook and Twitter posts, YouTube videos and other internet content occur fairly regularly as companies seek to comply with local laws around the world. In China, Apple has removed apps that run afoul of government censors, including software that would give Chinese users access to the open global internet. A 2016 court decision in Russia led Apple and Google to remove LinkedIn from their app stores after LinkedIn did not comply with a law requiring data about Russian users be stored within the country’s borders.
But the removals on Friday by Google and Apple have little precedent given the electoral stakes and Mr. Navalny’s high-profile campaign against the Kremlin, said Natalia Krapiva, legal counsel for Access Now, a civil society group tracking internet censorship. “This is really a new phenomenon to go after the app stores,” Ms. Krapiva said.
While the companies would prefer to be seen as impartial platforms, Ms. Krapiva said industry leaders should speak out more forcefully in defense of free speech and an open internet, especially if company employees were being threatened with criminal prosecution.
Otherwise, “it looks like they are standing with the government,” said Ms. Krapiva.
Governments have used the prospect of prosecution in the past, though the incidents rarely become public. In 2016, a Facebook executive was arrested in Brazil after the company refused to turn over WhatsApp data related to a drug-trafficking investigation. The authorities in India and Thailand are among those that have also threated imprisonment to pressure social media companies.
Russian authorities have been pressuring Apple and Google for weeks to remove the Navalny team’s voting app. With Mr. Navalny’s websites blocked inside Russia, the app became a loophole allowing exiled allies of the imprisoned politician to continue to reach a wide audience. Nearly every smartphone runs Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android operating system, making their app stores the key artery for getting any product to the public.
The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the American ambassador to Moscow, John J. Sullivan, last week and announced that “American ‘digital giants’” had broken Russian law “in the context of the preparation and conduct of the elections.”
Bailiffs visited Google’s offices earlier this week seeking to enforce court-ordered measures against the protest voting campaign, state media reported.
The Navalny app has continued to work on Apple and Android phones for those who had already downloaded the software.
The app is central to the protest strategy that the opposition leader calls “smart voting.” The goal is to defeat as many candidates representing the governing United Russia party as possible by having all opposition-minded voters in each district pick the same challenger — whether or not they agree with their views.
The “Navalny” app coordinates the process, requesting a user’s address and responding with the name of the candidate they should vote for.
The Navalny team on Friday sought to get the names of their “smart-voting” picks out by other methods, such as automated responses in the messaging app Telegram. But they voiced anger at Apple and Google for what they viewed as folding to Kremlin pressure.
“This shameful day will long remain in history,” Leonid Volkov, Mr. Navalny’s longtime chief of staff, wrote on his Telegram account.
Anton Troianovski reported from Moscow, and Adam Satariano from London. Oleg Matsnev and Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.