MOSCOW (Reuters) – Allies of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny accused Telegram of censorship on Saturday after the popular messaging app followed Google and Apple to restrict access to their voting campaign in Russia’s parliamentary elections.
Activists have previously accused Alphabet’s Google and Apple of giving in to Kremlin pressure after removing an app from their stores that Navalny’s allies hoped to use against the ruling party in the election.
The app gives detailed recommendations on who to vote for in order to challenge the party that supports President Vladimir Putin. It is one of the few levers that Navalny’s allies have left behind after a sweeping crackdown this year.
Telegram founder Pavel Durov, who has carved out a libertarian image and resisted past censorship, said the platform would block campaign services, including one used by Navalny’s allies to give recommendations to voters.
He said the decision was made due to a Russian ban on campaigning after polling stations open, which he saw as legitimate and similar to bans in many other countries.
Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh condemned the move.
“It is a real shame when censorship is imposed by private companies who allegedly defend ideas of freedom,” she wrote on Twitter.
Ivan Zhdanov, a political ally of Navalny, said he did not believe in Telegram’s justification and that this decision appeared to have been agreed to somehow with Russian authorities.
Navalny’s camp said it wasn’t a fatal blow as their voting recommendations were available elsewhere on social media.
But it’s seen as a possible step in Russia’s crackdown on the internet and its standoff with US tech companies.
Russia has for years sought sovereignty over its part of the Internet, where anti-Kremlin politicians have followers and Putin’s critical media operate.
The ruling United Russia party is still expected to win the election despite declining ratings. The vote, which opened Friday and continues through Sunday, follows the biggest crackdown on domestic Kremlin opponents in years.
Team Navalny’s Telegram feed continued to function normally on Saturday and included links to voter recommendations available in Russia through Google Docs.
On another Telegram feed also used by the team, activists said Russia asked Google to remove the recommendations from Google Docs and the US company in turn asked Navalny’s team to remove them.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In his statement, Durov said Google and Apple’s restrictions on the Navalny app set a dangerous precedent and meant Telegram, which is widely used in Russia, was more vulnerable to government pressure.
He said Telegram depended on Apple and Google to function due to their dominance in the mobile operating system market and that its platform could not have withstood a Russian ban from 2018 to 2020 without them.
Russia attempted to block Telegram in April 2018, but lifted the ban more than two years later after ostensibly failing to block it.
“The blocking of apps by Apple and Google is setting a dangerous precedent that will affect free speech in Russia and around the world,” Durov said in a Telegram article.
Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Additional reporting by Anton Zverev and Alexander Marrow; Editing by David Clarke