Wed, 08 Dec 2021

Popular messaging app Telegram has suspended 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.

Russians headed to the polls for the second of three days of voting on September 18, in a parliamentary vote that the ruling Kremlin-backed United Russia party is expected to win following a clampdown by authorities on dissent that eliminated vocal Kremlin critics from the ballot and crushed independent media.

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.

The team created a Smart Voting chat bot on Telegram, which became one of its main electoral tools.

But 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.

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.

Durov also said he was following Apple and Google, which 'dictate the rules of the game to developers like us.'

'The blocking of applications by Apple and Google creates a dangerous precedent that will affect freedom of speech in Russia and around the world,' he added.

Durov 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.

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

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.

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.

Russian authorities had repeatedly threatened Google and Apple 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.

On the eve of the elections, regulators also temporarily blocked the Google Docs 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

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