The delicate dance of Google and Russia

Many Google services, including Search, Maps, Gmail and, perhaps most importantly, YouTube, continue to be available in Russia at a time when Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are not. The situation illustrates the difficult position both sides currently find themselves in and the current precarious state of the Russian internet ecosystem. Russia has tried to cut its internet off from the world, but seems to recognize the potential backlash from citizens for banning the most popular services. For its part, Google has spoken out against Russia’s actions, but also has strategic and moral incentives to stay.
The Russian government continues to try to pressure the Silicon Valley company, opening a new case last Friday against Google for its alleged failure to store Russian user data inside the country. (Google did not respond to a request for comment on Russia’s decision.) Weeks earlier, Google’s Russian subsidiary filed for bankruptcy and suspended most business operations after the government took control. of their bank accounts in the country.

“The seizure by Russian authorities of Google Russia’s bank account has rendered the operation of our office in Russia untenable, including the employment and payment of Russian-based employees, the payment of suppliers and vendors, and compliance with ‘other financial obligations,’ a Google spokesperson said in a statement. at CNN Business.

However, Google has stopped pulling out of Russia altogether, and Russia has stopped forcing it to do so.

“People in Russia rely on our services to access quality information and we will continue to keep free services such as Search, YouTube, Gmail, Maps, Android and Play available,” the spokesperson added. (Google has taken steps to withdraw its services in Russia, banning Russian state media channels and preventing them from selling ads while cracking down on misinformation around the war in Ukraine.)
Meanwhile, Russia’s Digital Development Minister Maksut Shadayev has ruled out a full ban on YouTube, one of Russia’s most popular online services. “We don’t plan to block YouTube,” Shadayev was quoted by Russian news agency Interfax as saying. “Whenever we block anything, we must clearly understand that no harm will be done to our users,” he added.

‘Last Man Standing’

For Google, there is clear strategic value in keeping its services active in a country with more than 100 million internet users – and a market in which it already has a strong position.

“Various Google services have secured significant market share in Russia, which the company may wish to retain in hopes of the end of the war and the lifting of sanctions,” said Mariëlle Wijermars, assistant professor of cybersecurity and in politics at the University of Maastricht. the Netherlands, whose work focuses on Russian internet policy. “Given Russia’s drive to establish digital sovereignty, it may be difficult to re-enter the market.”

But some internet governance experts say Google’s choice to keep services running in the country may have more of a moral imperative than a business imperative.

“I think the moral side is more important,” said Daphne Keller, director of the platform regulation program at Stanford University’s Cyber ​​Policy Center. “Getting information to reach dissidents in Russia, or people who want information from a source other than state media, is extremely important.”

Google did not respond to questions about its motivations for keeping its services active in Russia, but YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki last week explained the role the video platform sees itself playing in the country.

“The reason we’re still serving in Russia and we think it’s important is that we’re able to provide independent information in Russia,” Wojcicki told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos. , in Swiss. “And so the average citizen in Russia can access the same information for free that you can access here from Davos, which we think is really important in order to be able to help people know what’s going on and have perspectives from the outside world. .”

YouTube is used by about three-quarters of Russia’s online population, or more than 77 million people, according to Insider Intelligence estimates. Despite continued warnings from the Russian government to remove content, YouTube remains one of the few digital links between Russia and the outside world, especially as other global platforms have been blocked.

“YouTube in particular is kind of the last man standing, if you will,” said Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Washington DC-based Center. for European policy analysis, told CNN Business. “Google finds itself the last company standing in this larger battle between an authoritarian government and a Western tech company that provides one of the last spaces for free speech in Russia.” (Google is one of several companies from which CEPA receives “a small portion” of its funding in the form of donations, according to Polyakova.)

Why Russia Blinked With Google

Russia has used the war in Ukraine to step up its efforts to isolate its internet from the rest of the world, building what some have described as a digital iron curtain. But its decision not to ban Google’s various services shows the limits of the Russian Internet, which is more restricted and developed in Russia.

Not only is YouTube popular in the country, but Russian authorities have long used the platform to broadcast their own messages, with state media channels such as RT and Sputnik reaching millions of subscribers before they were taken down.

“Russia actively uses YouTube to spread propaganda,” Wijermars said. “To reach younger generations who watch less traditional TV, the online delivery of more suitable TV shows and online formats has been important in order to broaden the reach of its stories.”

Unlike local social network VK and search engine Yandex, no comparable local alternative to YouTube exists in Russia (government-backed RuTube has not achieved the same level of popularity).

“They don’t have a real national alternative, and I think they fear a backlash because so many Russians are using it,” Polyakova said. “And frankly, that gives YouTube a lot of leverage.”

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YouTube isn’t the only popular Western tech platform that Russia has left alone. WhatsApp, the mobile messaging service owned by Facebook’s parent company Meta, is still operational, with the Russian government saying it’s exempt because it’s a private messaging service rather than a public social network. But while Russia’s leniency towards YouTube has so far extended to Google as a whole, Meta’s other platforms, Facebook and Instagram, were among the first to be blocked.

YouTube is also just one of many Google services that Russians rely on.

“It’s unclear what would happen to, for example, its Android operating system, which is widely used in Russia, if Russia expelled YouTube,” Wijermars said. “The long list of tech companies that have announced they will exit the Russian market, along with the impact of sanctions, makes Russia’s digital economy highly vulnerable to such disruptions.”

For now, it looks like both Russia and Google are ready to drag their feet and dare the other side to cut the cord.

“I think the Russian government is certainly playing a very tricky game here,” Polyakova said. “There’s obviously a line they don’t want to cross and force this company to pull out completely.”

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