Catalan Coders Helped Sunday's Breakaway Vote Take Place

  • Outlawed replaced by copies not subject to judges’ ban
  • Aide to region’s president tweeted link to app ahead of vote

Catalonia Pushes Toward Independence After Vote

Coders aiding Catalonia’s independence push proved to be more nimble than Spain’s regional courts this past weekend, using their understanding of Google’s online app store to get residents to polling places in the illegal referendum marred by violence.

The Catalan superior court on Sept. 29 ordered the Google Play marketplace to remove the “1-O Referendum” app, which was created to help Catalans know where to vote two days later. Within hours of the ruling, a similar app with the same name was up and running.

By creating a new app, the developers were gaming Google rules and loopholes in arcane legal processes. Faced with a court order, the Alphabet Inc. unit will pull the offending app but won’t go beyond it to look for similar content from different developers. If two different developers produce apps -- even two apps that are essentially the same -- a court needs to send orders specifying both names. The Catalan court only mentioned the first one.

The court ruling that banned the original app specified that Catalan President Carles Puigdemont had mentioned the app on Sept. 27 on his Twitter account. The court also published a link to its location on Google Play. By election day Oct. 1, a press officer to Puigdemont was promoting the workaround app on his Twitter account, helping residents of the would-be breakaway region defy efforts to stop the vote.

“We take down content from our platforms when we receive a valid court order or when the content infringes terms and conditions of our products and services," Google said in an emailed statement.

Spanish stocks, shares of Catalan lenders and the euro fell on Monday as the country was left reeling from the previous day’s events that saw thousands of police use force to obstruct voting in the referendum ruled illegal by the constitutional court in Madrid. The clashes left hundreds of people injured, according to the regional government.

European leaders have been piling pressure on tech companies to do more weed out extremist content spread with social media, and to make their data available to law enforcement authorities.

Cyberspace has been an active front in the Catalan rebellion as well as the Spanish government pulled down websites, police detained hackers and software developers and hauled them into court to testify in the build-up to the election. On the day of the election, Internet connections were blocked at voting schools, stopping organizers from accessing the electoral register.

Among the highest-profile raids and arrests that have occurred since early September was the Sept. 20 police search of Fundacio puntCAT, the institution that manages the ".cat" internet domain, and arrested Pep Masoliver, an official at the foundation. The foundation is “devoted to ensuring that Catalan –- a persecuted and maltreated language -- has its space in the digital world,” according to a statement of protest posted on the foundation’s website.

Police also raided Catalonia’s Telecommunications and Technologies Center, which manages communications and computer systems for the local government, and the offices of T-Systems, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom AG that provide computer services to the agency and detained one of its executives.

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