How Big Tech let down Navalny

Ellery Roberts Biddle

 

As if the world needed another reminder of the brutality of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, last Friday we learned of the untimely death of Alexei Navalny. I don’t know if he ever used the term, but Navalny was what Chinese bloggers might have called a true “netizen” — a person who used the internet to live out democratic values and systems that didn’t exist in their country.

Navalny’s work with the Anti-Corruption Foundation reached millions using major platforms like YouTube and LiveJournal. But they built plenty of their own technology too. One of their most famous innovations was “Smart Voting,” a system that could estimate which opposition candidates were most likely to beat out the ruling party in a given election. The strategy wasn’t to support a specific opposition party or candidate — it was simply to unseat members of the ruling party, United Russia. In regional races in 2020, it was credited with causing United Russia to lose its majority in state legislatures in Novosibirsk, Tambov and Tomsk.

The Smart Voting system was pretty simple — just before casting a ballot, any voter could check the website or the app to decide where to throw their support. But on the eve of national parliamentary elections in September 2021, Smart Voting suddenly vanished from the app stores for both Google and Apple. 

After a Moscow court banned Navalny’s organization for being “extremist,” Russia’s internet regulator demanded that both Apple and Google remove Smart Voting from their app stores. The companies bowed to the Kremlin and complied. YouTube blocked select Navalny videos in Russia and Google, its parent company, even blocked some public Google Docs that the Navalny team published to promote names of alternative candidates in the election. 

We will never know whether or not Navalny’s innovative use of technology to stand up to the dictator would have worked. But Silicon Valley’s decision to side with Putin was an important part of why Navalny’s plan failed.  

Navalny’s team felt so abandoned by the companies at that moment that they compared it to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. At the time, photos of U.S. planes taking flight and leaving desperate Afghans behind on the runways of the Kabul airport were dominating global media.

“It felt like we’re people running alongside a plane that’s taking off. And here we are, being left behind,” Ivan Zhdanov told my colleagues investigating the fallout of the Smart Voting story for “Undercurrents: Tech, Tyrants and Us,” Coda’s podcast about the role of technology in the rise of global authoritarianism. 

“We rely on YouTube, on Google Docs, on all these other tools, to spread ideas of freedom, of democracy. But right now we are in a game that has no rules,” he said at the time. 

Russia’s transformation into a full digital dictatorship that ultimately killed its most prominent critic did not happen overnight. Listen to this episode of “Undercurrents: Tech, Tyrants and Us” to understand how it unfolded and what role Western technology companies played in strengthening Putin’s regime.

Why did these Big Tech behemoths, which claimed to support baseline human rights, bow down to the Kremlin? Neither company ever spoke publicly about the decision. The companies told Navalny’s organization that they were acting on a legal order. But what legitimacy does a legal order have when it’s clearly been written to target the government’s top adversary? 

This is the shaky ground on which these companies operate. If they want to keep doing business in a given country, they have to follow or at least pay lip service to the laws of the land. In a case like this one, it meant undermining the interests of regular Russians and democracy itself.

And then, just months later, the tables turned again. When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, companies across Silicon Valley put out statements declaring their support for Ukraine and their intentions to go after Russian state propaganda on their platforms. Both Meta and Twitter (now X) were banned in Russia, and companies like Apple and TikTok began blocking select services within the country. Tacit signs of support for the opposition also popped up. The Smart Voting app even reappeared in the App Store. Whatever rationale had led the company to remove the app suddenly evaporated.

This week, I caught up with Tanya Lokot and Marielle Wijermars, two internet policy scholars who specialize in the region, to ask their reflections on how things have evolved since that time, especially in the wake of Navalny’s death.

“It may be a bit too deterministic to say that his team’s dependence on tech platforms was ‘their downfall,’” they wrote in a joint response, noting that Navalny’s organization had “accounted for the restrictions and possible censorship and built alternative infrastructures to support their work.” They also talked about how building this kind of resilience has become more difficult since the start of the war. 

“It is getting harder and harder to find these alternatives, as more and more platforms are exiting Russia and users are relying on VPNs and other circumvention tools,” they wrote. Pressure from sanctions and an overall lack of technology is compounding the issue and isolating Russians further. And they noted that for Navalny’s organization, which now works mainly in exile, there are new challenges around getting information into the country. While the last few years have offered new lessons on the promise and perils of using technology to try to bring about change, Lokot and Wijermars made it clear that these are all mere battles in a much longer war.

Just yesterday, another tech company became the site of the latest battle — X briefly suspended the account of Navalny’s widow, Yulia Navalnaya. The company cited “automated security protocols” as the reason for the error.

After years avoiding the spotlight, Navalnaya came out this week with a gut-wrenching speech in which she declared her intention to seize the torch and keep fighting “harder, more desperately and more fiercely than before.” But with its tools decimated and its ultimate netizen gone, the fight now may be more brutal and more dangerous than ever.

From biometrics to surveillance — when people in power abuse technology, the rest of us suffer

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