By: Nicholas Morgan
On February 6th, Google began censoring search results deemed harmful to the Russian population at the behest of Roskomnadzor. This decision followed a fine of half a million rubles alongside other legal threats if the internet giant continued to remain in non-compliance.
Google’s actions represent a significant step for Western technology companies who may be expected to surrender to the regulatory requirements of markets steeped in internet censorship.
The most apparent risks faced by the firm were financial. Google’s Russia based subsidiary has seen its profits grow considerably in recent years, reaching approximately $680 million in 2017 through sales of its popular Android smartphones. Google’s sales have increased alongside its clout in the Russian market, its search engine rising being second only to Yandex with 46.2% of all searches conducted on its platform. Moreover, Google-owned Youtube hosts the highest number of Russian internet users, ahead of regional social networks such as VKontakte.
For Google, Roskomnadzor’s fine was less of a regulatory slap on the wrist than a financial pinch. The more significant risk came from the prospect of a ban, one of Roskomnadzor’s primary tools for forcing compliance lies from non-compliant firms. There is a precedent for this type of ban on a major internet company: Russian authorities blocked LinkedIn in 2016 for not complying with data localization laws and Telegram in 2018 for refusing to provide its encryption keys to the Federal Security Service (F.S.B).
However, instituting a ban is wrought with technical difficulties that make a permanent ban difficult. In the past, Russian authorities have haphazardly attempted to block sites from operating only to see users circumvent these actions through tools such as Virtual Private Networks (VPN). Authorities have tried to limit VPN traffic to blacklisted websites, but enforcement has remained difficult. Both parties evidently felt a settlement was in their best interests considering Google’s growing Russian user base and the issues Roskomnadzor would face in instituting a ban on its services. It would allow Google to continue to operate within the country while awarding Russian authorities a symbolic victory to show they can influence the behavior of large internet companies despite their limited resources.
Google’s compliance with the Russian censorship regime may not have occurred only because of a desire to protect its Russian operations. The firm, just like several of its peers including Facebook, has been in pursuit of new user markets even if entry into several may compromise some of their professed corporate values such as Google’s emphasis on conducting business according to the highest possible ethical standards.
Google’s attempts to re-enter China after its executives chose to exit the country for its unwillingness to comply with Beijing’s censorship system known as the “the Great Firewall” is a prime example. Censorship and government hacking of Gmail accounts belonging to human rights activists ultimately drove Google’s decision to leave the country. However, China possesses the largest user market in the world which has encouraged Google’s moves to re-enter the country after several years to access this potential.
This strategy has not come without difficulty for Google or comparable firms. Google was revealed to be developing a specially tailored censored search engine for use in China, known as Dragonfly as an attempt to comply with Chinese censors. However, its employees expressed great unease at working on such a project over concerns that it would contribute only to Beijing’s suppression of dissent online. Vice President Pence criticized Dragonfly for serving to further cement the ruling Communist Party’s control over the lives of its citizens. Speaking to American lawmakers, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai insists that the company has no plans to launch new businesses in China while the Dragonfly project was quietly shut down following so much backlash.
Russia, like China, has for years broadened its own body of laws to limit access to content deemed by the state to be harmful to its interests.
While the Russian market for Google may be of lesser importance in comparison to the Chinese one, it is possible that the company chose to enter compliance for purposes beyond protecting its business within the country. Instead, Google could be signaling its willingness to compromise its stated values to demonstrate its ability to work with similar censorship regimes including China’s. Already, Google deletes 70% of all requested content from censors while Russia makes up 75% of all content complaints made to the firm.
Google is not alone in its efforts to accommodate the requests of censorship regimes in countries such as Russia. Roskomnadzor has threatened legal action against Twitter as well as Facebook over their failure to locate user data on Russian citizens within the country’s borders. Already Apple, fearing a ban’s impact on iPhone sales, has agreed to store Russian user data in a physical center housed in Russia while Twitter and Facebook have been in correspondence with authorities over the same issue. Wielding the threat of a ban on access is detrimental to many of these companies, particularly at a time when they are facing regulatory actions from Western and other governments over the mishandling of user data, online disinformation and tax avoidance among others.
Faced with global backlash, Google may be tempted to believe that it is in their best interest to expand wherever possible even if it may result in placing profit ahead of human rights concerns online. Being hostage to the threat of national bans, companies operating in Russia can feel forced to compromise to an uncomfortable degree to protect their businesses. Despite that, it is another matter to abet the Russian state’s goals of limiting dissent online at the expense of individuals’ freedom of expression. While it is possible that in the short-run Google and others may succeed in protecting or acquiring new business for this goal, it will over the long run prove detrimental to society’s access to information and other digital freedoms.
Nicholas Morgan is an independent political analyst and M.A. student in Russian Studies at University College London.