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.