Big Techs of the United States feel the heat of a Russian crackdown

Russia is increasingly pressuring Google, Twitter and Facebook to fall in line with Kremlin internet crackdown orders or risk restrictions inside the country, as more governments around the world challenge the companies’ principles on online freedom.

Russia’s internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, recently stepped up its demands for the American companies to remove online content that it deems illegal or restore pro-kremlin material that had been blocked. The warnings have come at least weekly since services from Google, Twitter and Facebook were used as tools for anti-kremlin protest in January. If the three Silicon Valley giants do not comply, the regulator has said, they face fines or access to their products might be throttled.

The latest clashes flared up last month, when Roskomnadzor told Google to block thousands of unspecified pieces of illegal content, or it would slow access to the company’s services. A Russian court fines Google 6 million rubles, or about 80,000 USD, for not taking down another piece of content. The Government also ordered Facebook and Twitter to store all data on Russian users within the country by July 1 or face fines. In March, the authorities had made it harder for people to see and send posts on Twitter after the company did not take down content that the government considered illegal. Twitter has since removed roughly 600 posts to comply with the orders, according to Raskomnadzor. The regulator has threatened similar penalties against Facebook.

Russia’s campaign is part of wave of actions by governments worldwide to test how far they can go to censor the web to maintain power and stifle dissent. Also last month, the police visited Twitter’s offices in New Delhi in India in a show of force. India’s governing party has become increasingly upset with the perception that Twitter has sided with its critics during the coronavirus pandemic. In Myanmar, Poland, Turkey and elsewhere, leaders are also tightening internet controls. In Belarus, President Lukashenko signed a law banning livestreams from unauthorized protests. All of these policies in our opinion will have the effect of creating a fractured internet, where people in the future have different access to different content.

The struggle over online speech in Russia has important ramifications because the internet companies have been seen as shields from government censors. The latest actions are a major shift in the country, where the internet, unlike television, had largely remained open despite President Putin’s tight grip on society.

That has changed as Russians have increasingly used the online platforms to speak out against Mr. Putin and to organize and share information. Russian officials, taking a cue from China’s Great Firewall, have pledge to build a “sovereign internet”, a legal and technical system to block access to certain websites and fence off parts of the Russian internet from the rest of the world.

What’s happening in Russia in our opinion foreshadows an emerging global trend when censorship become the one tool in the ultimate battle for writing the rules that major tech platforms have to follow. Access to a free and open internet, which is an essential right for all citizens becomes more and more history. The Russian government has portrayed the tech industry as part of a foreign campaign to meddle in its affairs. Twitter became the first major test of Russia’s censorship technology in March when access to its service was slowed down, according to researchers of the University of Michigan. The government, which had threatened to ban Twitter entirely, said the company had eventually complied with 91% of its takedown requests. Other internet companies have also been affected. Recently, TikTok, the popular social media platform owned by the Chinese company Bytedance, was fined 2.6 million rubles (approx. 36,000 USD) for not removing posts seen as encouraging minors to participate in illegal demonstrations. The fines so far are small, but larger penalties loom. The Russian government can increase fines to as much as 10% of a company’s revenue for repeat offenses, and, perhaps more important, the authorities can disrupt their services.

Perhaps the biggest target has been Google. YouTube has been a key outlet for government critics like Mr. Navalny to share information and organize. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, Google has employees in Russia. In addition to last month warning, Russia has demanded that Google lift restrictions that limit the availability of some content from state media outlets like Sputnik and Russia Today outside Russia. Russia’s antitrust regulator is also investigating Google over YouTube’s policies for blocking videos.

Google is trying to use the courts to fight some actions by the Russian government. Recently, it sued Roskomnadzor to tight an order to remove 12 YouTube videos related to opposition protests. The company also appealed a ruling ordering YouTube to reinstate videos from Tsar grad, a nationalist online TV channel, which Google had taken down over what it said were violations of American sanctions.

Google’s lawsuit to fight the YouTube takedown orders in our opinion will influence what other countries will do in the future, even if the company most likely will lose in court. Most probably the Russian example will be used elsewhere if it works well.