Google Removed Catalonian Referendum App Following Spanish Court Order

from the this-seems-problematic dept

Last month, we wrote about the crazy situation in Spain, where the government was so totally freaked out about a Catalonian referendum on independence that it shut down the operators of the .cat domain, arrested the company’s head of IT for “sedition” and basically shut down a ton of websites about the referendum. The Washington Post now has an article with even more details about the digital attacks in both directions around the Catalonian independence referendum, including hack attacks and DDoS attacks. But one thing caught my eye. Apparently, the supporters of the referendum had created an app called “On Votar 1-Oct.” The app had a bunch of the expected functions:

The app, available on Google Play until just before 7 p.m. on Friday, helps people to find their polling station via their address and shows the closest polling stations on Google Maps via GPS, the name of the town or keywords.

It also allows users to share links to polling station locations.

But the Spanish government was so freaked out by the referendum and anything related to it, that it ran and got a court order demanding Google take the app out of Google’s app store:

The court order told Google Inc?at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway Mountain View CA 94043 (USA)?to take down the app located at that URL and also to block or eliminate any future apps submitted by the user with e-mail address “” or identifying as “Catalonia Voting Software”.

The judge says in her ruling that the tweet with the app link is “only a continuation of the actions of the [Catalan government] to block” Constitutional Court and High Court orders “repeatedly”.

In the Washington Post article, the CTO of the Catalonian government explains why this is so disappointing:

?I?m a tech guy,? says Jordi Puigner?, chief technology officer of the Catalonian government. ?So I?ve always been a great fan of Google and its principles of respect for digital rights. But now I?m really disappointed with the company.? (Puigner??s office was also occupied by police during the referendum, he says.)

And you can understand why he’s disappointed. But, the real problem here, seems to be going back to the same problem we keep identifying over and over again: deep centralization of the digital world. Part of the very promise of Android was that it was supposed to be open, and people weren’t supposed to be locked into just Google’s app store. And, indeed, there are competing app stores — but the general argument around them (with the possible exception of Amazon’s competing Android app store) is that if you want to keep your device secure, you’ll only download via Google’s app store.

And then we’re back to a problem where there’s a centralized choke point for censorship — one which the Spanish government is able to exploit to make that app much more difficult to access. Google, for its part, said it took the app down because it had received a valid court order. And, that’s true, but it’s also opening up yet another path to widespread censorship. Google has stood up against similar situations in the past, but the decision of whether or not a movement should be stifled should never come down to whether or not a giant company like Google decides its worth taking a moral stand against a legal court order. The problem is much more systemic, and its built into this world where we’ve started to build back up gatekeepers.

For nearly two decades, I’ve argued that the real power of the internet was not — as many people initally argued — that it got rid of “middlemen,” but rather that the middlemen turned into enablers rather than gatekeepers. In the old world, when only some content could get released/published/sold/etc., you had to rely on gatekeepers to choose which tiny percentage would get blessed. The power of internet platforms was that they became enablers, allowing anyone to use those platforms and to publish/release/sell/distribute things themselves, often to a much wider audience. But there’a always a risk that over time, former enablers become gatekeepers. And it’s a fear we should be very conscious about — even if it’s not done on purpose.

To be clear, I don’t think Google wants to be a gatekeeper around things like apps. It would prefer not to be. But because the marketplace has become so important, and because Google’s role is so central, it almost has no choice. And when governments start issuing court orders to take down apps, suddenly Google is left with few good options. Either it censors or it picks fights with a government. And even if many of us would probably support and cheer on the latter as a choice, we should be concerned that this is even an issue at all. The solution has to be less reliance on centralized platforms and centralized choke points. Catalonians shouldn’t have to rely on Google to get a simple voting app out to the public. The next big breakthroughs need to be towards getting past such bottlenecks.

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Comments on “Google Removed Catalonian Referendum App Following Spanish Court Order”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: But NO problem when Google chooses what will be censored?

First, “Roger Strong”, have you even read the link? There’s plenty of statements there.

Now, are you claiming that those issues have been covered or criticized by Techdirt? If so, give links.

Who is this “we”? Are you part of Techdirt? Or just fancy yourself royalty?

Just so I know how to respond. You go first with some STATEMENTS. I don’t fall for the endless questions tactic, learned my lesson there from the now rare “nasch” and “Gwiz”.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: But NO problem when Google chooses what will be censored?

Wooo; scare quotes! I’m posting with my real name. I’m assuming that you are too.

There have been plenty of stories here criticizing Google. Sometimes followed up by posts joking about your claims that it doesn’t happen. You’ve become a running gag.

Most stories about Google are neither pro nor anti Google. They criticize various questionable government and litigant claims, with Google merely being the biggest and most obvious excuse for their butthurt or the ill health of their favorite dinosaurs.

But do a simple Google search, and you’ll find plenty of stories criticizing Google too. One about Google censorship a few weeks ago comes up on the first page of results.

Let’s call this what it actually is: Google has occasionally been hamfisted and stupid on how it handles YouTube on third party devices chiefly in order to exert a greater level of control it rarely actually achieves. In some ways this has all the hallmarks of a Sony-style way of doing business, which is an odd look for Google.

On the second page of results, the headline:

Thanks, Google, For Fucking Over A Bunch Of Media Websites

Spoiler: It’s not pro-Google.

Naturally, one comment was voted Funny by the readers:

Just more proof …

Clearly this is just more proof that Mike Masnick is a Google shill.

Running gag. You may have hidden your name, but your core identity is well known.

Anonymous Coward says:

‘the real power of the internet was not — as many people initally argued — that it got rid of “middlemen,” but rather that the middlemen turned into enablers rather than gatekeepers’

and this is exactly why industries like Hollywood, the movie and music industries are doing whatever it takes to stop this from happening and enabling them to remain as ‘gatekeepers’ stifling anything and everything that could effect their ability to lose control of what they think should never be anyone else but theirs to decide who can have, when, how, where and at what time point and price!

Christenson says:

Protocols, not platforms!

I think it’s been said somewhere on Techdirt that central platforms (google, facebook, twitter, take your pick) are a problem in general, and this is why we need protocols, more along the lines of bittorrent. Bigness, in the platform space, is a problem.

Part two of this is that we really don’t have secure computing platforms. We see this with the Kaspersky fracas this week; underneath it is the problem that I can’t really trust my computer after I let *X* put their software on it.

LOL, What do you mean I don’t have an independent way to verify that my *X* app isn’t pilfering passwords out the back door?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Protocols, not platforms!

Part two of this is that we really don’t have secure computing platforms.

LOL, What do you mean I don’t have an independent way to verify that my X app isn’t pilfering passwords out the back door?

You kind of have that security. Even with 3rd-party app stores, apps don’t get network access unless you allow it (I’m ignoring exfiltration via audio waves etc.).

There’s more than 1 centralization problem here:

  • Google(‘s automated systems) approve the apps
  • Google distribute the apps
  • Google know who they’re distributing to

It doesn’t have to be like that. Google’s app-scanners could sign the apps and send them back to the author to distribute, or to or bittorrent or a whole network of unaffiliated servers. They could use Tor so they don’t know who’s downloading what. They’d need some sort of revocation system, preferably accounting for the lessons of ocsp-pinning… and they could use different failure codes and allow the user to override it. "Revoked due to malware" and "revoked due to a legal order" could show separately on the GUI.

A signature-based system would be "protocols not platforms", and could be easily extended with extra signatures: "Google says it’s not malware", "F-Droid says it’s free software" etc. It doesn’t even require new technology.

flyinginn says:

Protocols and Apps

Platforms are increasingly locations for international disputes about ownership of ideas and legitimacy of expression. If they have a location and a legally-identifiable owner, they are vulnerable. So protocols, and I wonder if something like Ethereum is a workable direction for distributed, unlocated, unattributable applications? It puts security back into the realm of consensuality instead of owned authority.

MyNameHere (profile) says:

Risk v reward

Google (and most of the other big players) have products and services in almost every country that has significant value to them. With almost 50 million people, Spain is a larger market than Canada, as an example. Google wouldn’t want to risk their rest of their business in order to support a separatist faction.

Google has little choice but to follow the law here. The Spanish courts could have easily moved to have the play store blocked at the ISP level. or perhaps moved on Google’s offices in Spain with an injunction or restraining order that may have even shut them down until they complied.

Also, let’s be clear here: Google has played fast and loose when it comes to tax avoidance for the last decade. Pissing off the Spanish government would lead to further scrutiny, and that could lead to a billion dollar tax bill. I doubt Google wants to take the chance of rocking anyones boat.

It’s not Google’s fight to fight. If the separatists want their app re-instated, they need to go to the court and complain. It’s their fight. In the same way you can’t buy certain products at a Wal-Mart, it’s not the retailer to argue the case, it’s the maker.

Google has it’s own interests, and those aren’t risking it’s business to help a few seperatists – no matter how good or noble the cause.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Risk v reward

Google tried following the law once, when Spanish newspapers ordered Google to pay them through the nose or leave. When Google agreed to pull out, the same newspapers threw a tantrum.

Following the law doesn’t protect you. Even a sycophant screaming “the law is the law is the law” will backpedal like a swimmer getting savaged by a shark, if it serves his shilling, authoritarian purposes.

Sok Puppette (profile) says:

And, indeed, there are competing app stores — but the general argument around them (with the possible exception of Amazon’s competing Android app store) is that if you want to keep your device secure, you’ll only download via Google’s app store.

Yeah, that’s the argument generally made by Google’s PR flacks and their dupes. It never has made any sense at all, mind you.

Google’s checks aren’t particularly effective, and Google Play is the number one distributor of Android malware just like it’s the number one distributor of all Android software.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

However, if they keep that app on their US servers, Spanish law has no jurisdiction.

Google’s app stored is hosted in the United States. There, apps sold from their US servers only have to comply with United States law.

Just like when I ran an online radio station, and also ran a free VPN to allow people to bypass workplace filters to listen, becuase the VPN was hosted in my apartment in Sacramento, California, that VPN was ONLY subject to American laws. In other words, laws in Oman, Pakistan, and Iran, that specifically outlaw VPNs without a VPN license did not apply to my server.

My VPN server was not subject to the laws of any country, other than the United States. I only only had to obey American law when it came to that VPN/Proxy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“So a foreign multinational doing business in the US – with offices in the US – isn’t subject to US law because their servers are elsewhere?”

Wait. I thought that if they did any kind of business at all in a country, then all of their operations worldwide were subject to that country’s laws. That isn’t so? Now you’re confusing us!

DannyB (profile) says:

Google helping to maintain law and order

Google is simply helping Spain protect the best interests of the Catalonian people by suppressing their right to vote, silencing the chaos of people expressing their worthless opinions, and most important of all, denying them the right to choose how and by whom they will be governed. What could go wrong? The latest polls indicate that 98% of world dictators agree.

Dan T. says:

Catalan situation

You can expect a lot more such court orders in the near future as Spain moves to take control of the Catalan government and the Catalan public and local officials move to obstruct this (expected by the end of this week). Spain will probably issue all sorts of demands of various Internet companies seeking control of websites, domains, email accounts, social media accounts, apps, and so on that are in the name of various parts of the Catalan government. If Catalonia goes forward with declaring independence, it may convene its own courts to issue orders of its own.

Si seguro says:

Re: Catalan situation

You mean, former Catalan public and local officials. If the Spanish government decide to temporally stop the delegation of authority to the Catalan officials they are not officials anymore. By the Spanish constitution the political authority comes from the Spanish people, from all people of Spain.

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