(Bloomberg) -- Russia is stepping up pressure on U.S. technology companies ahead of this week’s parliamentary elections, the latest move in an escalating squeeze on the Internet.
Legislators Thursday singled out Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google for failing to block access to content related to a protest drive led by jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Regulators also threatened to dramatically increase fines on the companies. Navalny’s so-called smart voting initiative aims to concentrate popular discontent to defeat ruling party candidates; Russian courts have banned mention of it online.
The crackdown also led to interruptions in access to Google Docs in Russia after Navalny’s supporters used the text editor to distribute its lists of recommended candidates, according to Roskomsvoboda, an Internet advocacy group. Similar problems were reported earlier in the week with Apple’s App Store, through which a smart voting app was distributed.
President Vladimir Putin, 68, after two decades in power has sharply stepped up efforts to rein in the internet, which has remained a bastion of free speech. Earlier this year after mass protests at Navalny’s imprisonment, Russia slowed down access to Twitter. It also slapped fines of several million dollars on social media companies including Facebook and Google for not deleting calls for demonstrations that were ruled illegal by authorities.
The Kremlin is planning to deliver a resounding victory in weekend voting for the ruling party despite faltering support amid stagnant living standards. Competitors have been pushed off the ballot and Navalny allies have been forced into exile or jailed. The smart voting effort could embarrass the Kremlin’s preferred candidates in some races.
The Foreign Ministry summoned the U.S. ambassador last week to complain that American “digital giants” are violating Russian laws on non-interference in elections. Court bailiffs visited Google’s office in Moscow on Tuesday over the smart voting ban.
“I’m all for our special services being able to cut off sites so no one can access them,” said Pavel Danilin, a Kremlin political consultant. “But unfortunately, they don’t have that ability and don’t work like that.”
The Kremlin denies any plans to restrict internet access broadly but says that western tech companies must obey Russian laws. Spokespeople for Google and Apple didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
“Formal grounds already exist for the complete blocking in Russia of Apple, Google, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and others,” said Damir Gainutdinov, an Internet freedom expert at the Agora human rights group. Authorities also trying to force virtual private network providers to stop users from circumventing bans and accessing unauthorized content, he said.
Earlier this month, the Roskomnadzor regulator blocked access to six VPN providers, including some of the world’s most popular such services, for allowing access to “prohibited” information and resources.
“For now, it seems they are just testing their ability to limit information,” said Gainutdinov. “But the risk is that Russia may opt for much tighter control.”
The Internet restrictions come as the Kremlin has waged an increasing crackdown on political life, detaining thousands of protesters and jailing opposition activists. Navalny, who’s serving a 2 1/2 year prison term, barely survived a chemical poisoning last year he and Western governments blamed on the Kremlin. Russian officials deny any role in the nerve-agent attack. Russia this year also banned Navalny’s organizations, labeling them extremist.