Popular messaging app Telegram has suspended all chat bots used in the election campaign in Russia, dealing a further blow to the smart voting initiative of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny after Apple and Google removed the election guide application of their stores.
The Russians went to the polls for the second of three polling days on September 18, in a parliamentary vote that the Kremlin-backed ruling United Russia party is expected to win following a crackdown by the dissent authorities who eliminated harsh criticism of the Kremlin from the poll and crushed the 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 of defeating the candidates of the ruling pro-Kremlin United Russia party – even though this alternative candidate comes from one of the other major political parties.
The team created a Smart Voting chatbot on Telegram, which has become one of its main electoral tools.
But Telegram founder Pavel Durov announced late on September 17 that the service would respect Russia’s “electoral silence,” a law practiced in other countries that prohibits campaigning during elections.
“We consider this practice to be legitimate … and we plan to limit the operation of bots associated with election campaigns”, said the Russian founder one of the world’s most popular messaging apps.
When voting began on September 17, the Smart Voting app disappeared from Apple and Google online stores in what Navalny associates called censorship and tech giants giving in to pressure from the Kremlin.
Durov also said he was following Apple and Google, which “set the rules of the game for developers like us.”
“The blocking of applications by Apple and Google is setting a dangerous precedent that will affect freedom of expression in Russia and around the world,” he added.
Durov said Telegram, like other mobile apps, relies on the ecosystems and support of Apple and Google to function. He said the two tech giants had already asked Telegram this year to suppress information to comply with the laws of other countries.
US tech companies “have threatened to exclude Telegram from the Google Play and App Store app catalogs” if they don’t comply, Durov said.
“Now, judging by their blocking of the Smart Voting app, this practice has spread to Russia. Changes in policy from Apple and Google will inevitably affect Telegram, as they, as the creators of the two major mobile operating systems, are at the top of the news distribution food chain and can dictate the rules of the game. developers like us, ”he said. noted.
“It’s sad but expected: I have written more than once that the Apple and Google oligopoly is a threat to freedom of expression,” he added.
There was no immediate comment from Apple or Google.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Google and Apple were simply complying with “the letter and the spirit” of Russian law by removing the app.
Russians vote September 17-19 for the lower house of parliament, or State Duma, as well as for local elections in dozens of regions, including regional elections and governorate elections.
In recent months, authorities have unleashed a sweeping crackdown on Navalny’s allies and embarked on 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 shut down after authorities branded his political network and anti-corruption foundation an “extremist organization,” which banned allies of the politician to participate in the elections.
Russian authorities have repeatedly threatened Google and Apple with fines if they do not block the app.
On the eve of the election, regulators also temporarily blocked the Google Docs app as Navalny’s team released their list of Smart Voting approvals.