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Russia said to target Google Docs to stamp out anti-Kremlin voting lists before election

September 16, 2021, 10:38 AM UTC

Russia has reportedly started blocking people from accessing Google Docs, in what appears to be the latest digital crackdown ahead of elections this week.

With voting set to begin Friday, independent censorship monitors said Wednesday that the telecommunications operators Rostelecom, MegaFon, and MTS, as well as Rostelecom-owned Tele2, were not letting their users access Google’s collaborative document sharing and editing platform.

The issue, according to the GlobalCheck and Roskomsvoboda organizations, appears to be the publication on Google Docs of so-called Smart Voting lists, created by associates of the jailed and poisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

Navalny and his associated political organizations have been classified as “extremist,” a designation that removes them from any elections and allows for their online censorship. On Wednesday, Navalny’s team published lists—on Google Docs and on Telegram’s telegra.ph platform—of candidates whom people could strategically vote for in order to get rid of politicians who back President Vladimir Putin. Both platforms are now reportedly being blocked, along with tools (in particular virtual private networks, or VPNs) that Russians might use to bypass the blockage.

“If we sent out recommendations by pigeon post, they would probably have shot the birds,” tweeted Kira Yarmysh, Navalny’s press secretary, who has continued using Twitter to send out “smart voting” recommendations.

Blacklist

Putin’s regime has a very long history of online censorship, with media regulator Roskomnadzor operating an enormous blacklist of sites and services that telecom operators have to block.

The official Smart Voting website got that treatment earlier this month, allegedly because it was infringing on a trademark registered this summer by a little-known company that the BBC found was linked to Russian security forces. A Moscow court told Google and local rival Yandex to stop returning search results for the term—Yandex complied, but Google did not, and this week it received a visit from state bailiffs who were trying to enforce the order.

What is unusual about the current situation is the fact that Roskomnadzor has not officially put Google Docs and telegra.ph on its blacklist—a fact that anti-censorship activists say demonstrates the arbitrariness and possible illegality of the blockages.

In an emailed statement, the watchdog insisted Thursday that Google Docs was still accessible in Russia. “We recommend that you address questions regarding the unavailability of foreign resources to their owners,” it said.

Google had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication. However, this is not the first time the company has been caught up in controversy surrounding this week’s elections.

At the start of September, Roskomnadzor threatened both Google and Apple with “criminal liability” over their failure to remove Navalny’s app from their Android and iOS app stores, as the agency had ordered them to do in August. Roskomnadzor said they were aiding banned, extremist organizations, and the Kremlin accused the companies of interfering in the elections. The move was followed by reported preparations for the potential blockage of Internet infrastructure used by Navalny’s app.

On Tuesday, a district court fined Facebook around $285,000, and Twitter and Telegram lesser amounts, for failing to delete banned content from their platforms. In March, Roskomnadzor ordered telecom firms to slow down Twitter’s service owing to the same issue.

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