How Big Tech let down Navalny

Article by 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…(More)”.