Sep 18, 2021 1 min, 59 secs

The breadth of the censorship demands, backed by recently-passed laws targeting content deemed to be illegal, are challenging the internet companies’ commitments to human rights principles and internet freedom, experts say.

On Friday, after weeks of resistance, Apple and Google complied with an order to remove an app developed by Russian activists supporting jailed Kremlin critic and opposition leader Alexei Navalny from their Russian app stores after the country accused the companies of election interference.

He said that Apple and Google were following the “letter and spirit of the law” by deleting the apps from the Russian stores. .

The takedown of Navalny’s app is the culmination of months of tension between the Silicon Valley-headquartered tech companies and Russian regulators.

Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Google agree to comply with local laws in countries where they operate but also have their own policies to enshrine internationally recognized human rights standards, as laid out by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

International human rights experts said that the app takedown set a worrying precedent.

Kaye added that Google and Apple both have offices and employees in Russia, which means the companies have “set themselves up for a kind of hostage-taking situation.”.

One is to pass laws requiring platforms to do some things to signify their compliance up front -- before they even receive a takedown request,” she said, pointing to laws that require companies to have a local office with employees or data stored in the country

In February 2020, Russia fined Facebook and Twitter about $63,000 each for failing to store the data of Russian users on local servers, as specified by a controversial law that first took effect in 2015

Two Facebook employees, who asked that their names not be used because they are not authorized to speak publicly, said that the company has been leaning on international human rights principles to push back on takedown requests related to Navalny, including including posts related to his voting app, but they expected that Apple and Google’s compliance would create more pressure for the social media giant. 

According to Twitter’s latest Transparency Report for the second half of 2020, Russian officials filed 6,351 takedown requests, but Twitter acted in only a quarter of them. 

Kaye said that the tech companies’ response to Russian internet restrictions would be watched closely by other regimes seeking to take more control of online speech

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