Orlando Sentinel

More anti-Kremlin content blocked amid Russia election

- By Anton Troianovsk­i and Ivan Nechepuren­ko

MOSCOW — Russian opposition activists said Google had taken down videos and documents they were using to organize a protest vote in this weekend’s elections, the latest sign of rising pressure from the Kremlin on American internet giants.

The actions by Google in response to government demands involved blocking access inside Russia to several YouTube and Google Docs links being used by allies of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny to coordinate protest voting in each of the country’s 225 electoral districts, said the activists, members of Navalny’s team. On Friday, Google and Apple removed the activist group’s protest-voting app after Russian officials threatened to prosecute the American companies’ employees inside the country.

Google did not immediatel­y respond Sunday to a request for comment.

Russian elections are not free and fair, and videos appearing to show ballot stuffing and other types of fraud during the three-day vote that started Friday have circulated on social media. Despite slumping approval ratings, United Russia, the governing party of President Vladimir Putin, was certain to be declared the victor after polls closed.

Neverthele­ss, Navalny’s allies have been hoping to use a tactic they call “smart voting” to deliver a rebuke to Putin by pooling their votes to elect as many challenger­s to United Russia as possible, no matter the challenger­s’ political views.

Navalny’s strategy has been complicate­d by Russian authoritie­s’ cat-and-mouse efforts to shut down the online activism of his exiled allies. After Google complied with the Russian internet regulator’s demands Saturday that it take down YouTube videos and Google Docs files listing the smart-voting picks, the Navalny team quickly published new videos and documents that were accessible inside Russia on Sunday.

Google’s compliance with Russia’s demands in recent days has represente­d a remarkable concession for a company that prides itself on enabling the open exchange of informatio­n. In Russia, Google’s products have helped provide avenues for free expression even as the Kremlin has rolled back democratic freedoms.

Specific threats of prosecutio­n against some of Google’s more than 100 employees inside Russia forced the company to take down the Navalny smartphone app, a person familiar with Google’s decision told The New York Times on Friday. Russian courts in recent months have outlawed Navalny’s movement as extremist and declared his smart-voting campaign to be illegal.

This weekend’s elections come amid a harsh crackdown on dissent by the Kremlin and murmurings of popular discontent. Apparently fearing a rebuke at the ballot box, authoritie­s barred just about all well-known opposition figures from running for parliament, while forcing many dissidents into exile and declaring popular independen­t media outlets to be “foreign agents.”

 ?? OLGA MALTSEVA/GETTY-AFP ?? A voter examines the ballot Sunday during the last day of the three-day parliament­ary and local elections in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
OLGA MALTSEVA/GETTY-AFP A voter examines the ballot Sunday during the last day of the three-day parliament­ary and local elections in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

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