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 Puigneró, 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.” (Puigneró’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.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: bottlenecks, catalonia, democracy, election, independence, play store, points of failure, referendum, spain
Companies: google

Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread

  1. icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 23 Oct 2017 @ 3:31pm

    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.

Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter

Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Essential Reading
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.