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Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia. Picture: REUTERS/SHAMIL ZHUMATOV
Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny in Moscow, Russia. Picture: REUTERS/SHAMIL ZHUMATOV

Google employees have joined a cross-section of politicians and activists blasting the internet giant for pulling a voting app from Russia’s opposition leader, a move critics say showed the company is caving in to the Kremlin. 

Staff members complained at the weekend about Google’s decision on internal forums and on memegen, a messaging board that has served as a breeding ground for protests in the company. Images circulating inside Google, which were viewed by Bloomberg News, spoofed its corporate creed about prioritising users. One picture depicts a man reading a magazine below the slogan, “Putin the user first”. 

These internal frustrations are the latest in a series of blows to Alphabet’s Google operations in Russia, where the company is facing increased political pressure, fines and aggressive demands to police its influential internet services. So far, Google has decided those pressures are still worth operating in the multibillion-dollar advertising market. 

Google and Apple on Friday removed a smart-voting app from Alexei Navalny, an imprisoned critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Google made the decision to remove it from its online store in the country after officials threatened to jail local employees, according to a person close to the company. 

For some Google veterans, this unprecedented scenario reveals not only how much Russian authorities have tightened control over online activity, but how much the company has been willing to concede.

“They were pretty good at standing up to this stuff in the past,” said William Echikson, who served as Google’s head of free expression policy in Europe from 2008 to 2015. “But perhaps there’s not the same idealism at the company anymore. I suspect that standing up to governments is just not top of the list of their priorities.”

In 2010, Google pulled most of its services from mainland China, citing the nation’s strict censorship demands. The company has not exited a market that way since, though some see a possibility now. 

“Russia seems to be a contender,” said Daphne Keller, a former Google lawyer who directs the Program on Platform Regulation at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center. “This is really bad.”

When debating moderation decisions in Russia, Google managers discussed the fear that the country could become another China, according to a former senior employee who asked not to be identified discussing private matters.

Google representatives declined to comment. 

Google does not disclose sales in Russia. Next to the US and Europe, Russia’s online ad market is relatively small — analyst eMarketer estimates $3.82bn in digital ad spending, with more than half going to search marketing. Yandex, a Russia search and internet service, reported 56% national market share in web searches in 2019, making Russia one of the few countries outside China where Google is not the leader. 

Still, Google’s operations in Russia have come under intense scrutiny. Russian regulators have charged Google with anticompetitive behaviour with its Android mobile software. A prominent Putin ally has gone after Google after the company’s YouTube video arm pulled down his account. (Google, which has said it removed the account because of US sanctions, has sought a private settlement.)

And this week, Russia’s internet regulator is set to impose stiff fines on Google and other internet companies — as much as 20% of their annual local revenue — if they do not comply with internet moderation requests.

Russia’s crackdown on the Silicon Valley giant is part of a lengthy effort to restrict access to information in the country. A series of laws and regulations introduced in 2018 and 2019 expanded Russian authorities’ ability to filter and block internet content automatically, according to Human Rights Watch. The government requires internet service providers to install equipment that can stop websites or prevent certain content from appearing, and it has also sought to restrict citizens’ access to virtual private networks, tools that are used to circumvent censorship and protect anonymity online.

In March, Putin said in a speech that “society will collapse from the inside” unless the internet obeys “not just the laws of formal, legal rules, but also the moral laws of the society in which we live”.

Meanwhile, Russian courts have repeatedly issued fines in 2021 to Facebook and Twitter, accusing the companies of failing to remove unlawful content. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s internet regulator, slowed down Twitter in the country, disrupting people’s access to the social media website in an effort to force the company to comply with a demand to remove content deemed illegal.

In April, Russian authorities ordered Apple to pay $12m for allegedly breaking monopoly laws. Meanwhile, in July Google was ordered to pay a fine of 3-million roubles (about $41,000) for refusing to store Russians’ personal data on servers in the country.

Russia’s efforts to remove content from Google websites has rapidly increased in recent years. According to Google’s transparency reports, in 2015 the company received requests to remove fewer than 5,000 items from its websites. By 2020, that number had spiked to more than 340,000. More than half of all government requests to remove content from around the globe since 2011 have come from Russia, according to Google’s figures.

In many cases, Google has responded to Russian requests by blocking videos or websites only in Russia.

“After years of trying, Russia has found a way to bend big tech to their unreasonable demands,” said Natalia Krapiva, the tech-legal counsel at digital rights group Access Now. “[That is] bad news for democracy and dissent around the world. Expect to see other dictators copying Russia’s techniques.”

Keller, the Stanford lawyer, sees Russia’s recent behaviour as part of the broader shift in regulating technology: governments everywhere have written laws or raised proposals to oversee how internet platforms moderate speech, misinformation and political information. “Those laws may look OK when you’re talking about Germany,” Keller said. “The rubber meets the road in more authoritarian countries.”

Inside Google, employees stayed focused on implications for the company. Since its formation, Google has used the motto to make information “universally accessible and useful.” One memegen image being circulated display a map of the world where the Russian voting app is allowed. Every country is marked “universally accessible” — except for Russia, where the image just reads “useful”. 

“The company has changed,” said Echikson, the former policy executive. “It’s run by pragmatists now.” 

Bloomberg News. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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