In Russia’s So-Called Election, Tech Was a Big Loser

By Leonid Bershidsky | Bloomberg

The electoral farce that took place in Russia last week was hardly interesting as a political event: once again, the main Kremlin-backed party, United Russia, retained a constitutional majority in parliament in a procedure that only President Vladimir Putin’s propagandists could deem free or fair; this time around, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe couldn’t even send observers because of restrictions imposed by the Russian government.That doesn’t mean, however, that the rest of the world has nothing to learn from what happened. Anyone interested in how democracy, whether real or imitative, functions in the age of technology should pay attention.

The pure political promise of tech to society — formulated as a dream rather than a set of policy proposals — is that the free exchange of information on impartial, hard-to-block internet platforms should make censorship impossible, and that people should be able to cast their votes electronically in a way that renders tabulation shenanigans obsolete. Both parts of this dream were subverted and sullied in Russia on Sept. 17 through Sept. 19, in ways that have implications far beyond Russia’s borders.

Much has been written already about the acquiescence of Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Apple Inc. to the Russian government’s demand that they remove from their app stores an election-related app developed by the team of jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny. The app helped anti-Kremlin voters find candidates to support strategically so that United Russia would lose seats. The Russian government threatened criminal charges against the tech giants’ local staff if they failed to comply.

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