Nothing has changed about the Smart Voting product. The Navalny app has always exemplified, as Natalia Krapiva of digital freedom group Access Now put it on Twitter, “the very definition of democratic process” — countering the machinations of a regime that deals with its fear of dissenters by refusing to give them even the chance.
The only thing that has changed is the pressure. The government’s campaign has escalated bit by bit from ludicrous trademark complaint to threats to arrest the firms’ employees. The Financial Times reports that armed men showed up at Google’s Moscow offices on Thursday.
These intimidation tactics are, well, intimidating. The government in Russia has blacklisted the Navalny network as linked to terrorism. But Navalny’s longtime chief of staff, Leonid Volkov, drew an apt comparison when he wrote of the government’s menacing posture toward technology company employees: “What do terrorists do? They take hostages.” That the corporations would be vulnerable to that kind of pressure also demonstrates the danger of increasingly common laws around the globe requiring technology firms to maintain a physical presence in countries where they operate.
Yet powerful as the government may be, these trillion-dollar companies are powerful, too. Why else was the Kremlin spooked into mounting so public a pressure campaign? The silent capitulation by some of the United States’ most prominent businesses sends a message to authoritarians: You can get away with this, in Russia and anywhere else politicians are worried about the people having too much information — and too much sway.