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Commentary: In Russia's so-called election, tech was a big loser

Leonid Bershidsky, Bloomberg Opinion on

Published in Political News

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.

The logic behind the government demand will be familiar to Americans, especially those who believed in the “Russian interference” narrative following the 2016 presidential election. In a transparent mockery of that narrative, the presence of an anti-Kremlin app on foreign — U.S.-based — platforms was construed as election interference. Just as U.S. authorities forced Facebook Inc. to counteract Russian propagandists’ attempts to reach Americans with promoted political content, the Russian internet censor, Roskomnadzor, made its demands of Google and Apple.

You might think the lesson here is that Google and Apple are pliable and will keep doing whatever they can to keep their business in Russia. For example, if Apple can consider scanning iPhones for child pornography (a controversial move it now has delayed), why not, at the Russian government’s request, for banned “extremist” content?

Yet how far the tech companies are willing to go, and how low they are willing to bend, to save their business in an authoritarian-run country is almost beside the point. Russia’s behavior shows that such regimes won’t hesitate to chase them out. The Apples and Googles of this world hardly pay any local taxes, and to the regimes, the services they provide are fungible.

In Russia, home-grown Yandex, not Google, is the internet search leader with a 60% market share; as for iPhones, Russians can do without them if they have to, especially given Android’s more than 80% share (and yes, Russians can also do without Google Services on their Android phones, just like people in China). The government believes that a local “sovereign” solution can be offered in any area of tech. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin recently broached the idea of a Russian GitHub; with government backing, why not? Plenty of developers working for state companies or on state orders would put their work on it.

If U.S. Big Tech decided to take a stand and refuse to follow orders, one could easily imagine Russian regulators heaving a sigh of relief as they impose a total ban on their services, which would severely limit ordinary Russians’ access to them without messy workarounds.

That’s the real learning here: In any country where the authorities don’t want U.S. tech companies to carry local political content, they have the means to force compliance — or kick out the Silicon Valley companies. The tech kings have no clothes in the eyes of restrictive regimes; there’ll always be a local or Chinese alternative without any censorship resistance built in. Users won’t riot if they lose Google, or Twitter, or Facebook — they’ve learned to live without French cheese or Polish apples, banned in Russia since 2014, and they’ll make do with whatever replacements are on offer.

A troubling footnote is that the Google-and-Apple kowtow also affected the supposedly extraterritorial messenger app Telegram, run by Russian emigre Pavel Durov out of Dubai. Facing the removal of Telegram from the tech giants’ app stores, Durov disallowed a Navalny bot that was running on his platform. App developers’ dependence on the big platforms is a vulnerability in terms of the free spread of information; Telegram was able to fight off Roskomnadzor’s attempts to block it — but it can’t afford to be kicked out of the app stores.

If the internet’s promise of borderless information is to be fulfilled, it needs truly independent, distributed, border-agnostic platforms for free expression. U.S. tech looked for a time as if it had built them, but that was an illusion.

The other part of the tech promise — secure e-voting through the implementation of blockchain technology — was also dragged through the mud. Russia tested two electronic voting systems — one commissioned by the Moscow city government’s IT Department for the city’s use, another from the national telecommunications provider Rostelecom PJSC for other regions.

 

Both are sophisticated, intricate solutions that use blockchains to record results and, theoretically, make it possible for each voter to check how their vote has been tabulated. The developers undertook efforts at anonymization far beyond what’s been done in Estonia, the country that arguably relies most heavily on e-voting. Portions of the code have been made available on GitHub (not its putative Russian clone yet), hackathons were held, outsiders were invited to look for vulnerabilities. In Moscow, Alexey Venediktov, editor of the Echo Moscow radio station, known for providing a platform to opposition figures, put his reputation on the line to become the e-voting system’s public face. In other words, two massive, well-funded, highly visible pioneering tech projects, widely discussed by the Russian tech community, have been under way.

This initiative is not to be dismissed: Real democracies have either given up too quickly and easily on blockchain voting or haven’t even seriously considered it. Russia, with some of the best engineering brains in the world, at least has been giving it a try.

The outcome? In Moscow, the vote tally from the electronic system was announced hours after polls closed. The official explanation — that the Moscow system allows voters to change their decision up to seven times, and the extra time was necessary to make sure only the last choice is recorded — met with election observers’ distrust. The re-voting option wasn’t obvious to many users, and the system was often overloaded, making voters wait before they could submit their ballots. At one point, the functionality allowing observers to track the validation of votes lapsed.

And the announced results flipped the outcomes throughout Moscow, where Navalny-recommended candidates appeared to be winning as in-person votes were being counted; the e-votes went heavily in favor of pro-Kremlin candidates, and they ended up taking every Moscow seat. In a city that usually votes less favorably to the Kremlin than most other places in Russia, the most tech-savvy voters somehow ended up handing the victory to every contender backed by President Vladimir Putin and his ally, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

When some of the opposition-backed candidates complained, though, they couldn’t help but sound a lot like Donald Trump and his fans screaming their frustration as mail-in votes swung one outcome after another in favor of Joe Biden last November. If — to put it cautiously — something untoward happened in the e-voting system in the early hours of Sept. 20, it would look uncomfortably like a parody of what took place in the U.S. presidential election. Has Putin’s Russia trolled the U.S. again? We’ll never know: There’s no way to reconstruct the activity that led to the announced results.

A good voting system for these turbulent times, when vote outcomes are questioned in democracies long considered stable, not just in autocracies like today’s Russia, requires more than top-flight engineering brains to build. To be accepted by voters, any balloting solution must be transparent at every stage. That likely means real, distributed blockchains rather than ones controlled by election officials. It should be easy for voters to see how their choice has been counted, and for observers to check the transactions randomly and anonymously. Whether any country in the world is up to the task of building a system that would take trust completely out of the equation is unclear, but the Russian experience highlights the weak links in any such development effort. Much of the discussion of e-voting focuses on security; transparency may be even more important.

Russia is a paradox: A modern, technologically advanced nation in the grip of a retrograde tough-guy regime. It’s also still somewhat freer than China, so the interactions between its 21st-century and 20th-century sides are relatively public. The rest of the world is not insured against 20th-century relapses; it should take note of modernity’s failures and defeats in Russia — someday soon, they could become reality in the West, too.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Leonid Bershidsky is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation team based in Berlin. He was previously Bloomberg Opinion's Europe columnist. He recently authored a Russian translation of George Orwell's "1984."

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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