Google, one of the few American corporate giants still operating in Russia, is losing its biggest foothold in the country as tensions with the Kremlin continue to grow. Alphabet Inc. Google has shut down its advertising business in Russia, maintaining its popular consumer services, such as YouTube. But video services have become a significant source of tension with the government. YouTube has banned a Russian Defense Ministry channel, according to an internal document reviewed by Bloomberg – the latest in a series of moves that Google is hoping to trigger a shutdown in the country.
YouTube last week banned the Russian military from posting videos on the site for seven days after the ministry marked its attack on Ukraine in two videos as “liberation missions,” which the company removed, according to documents. The decision to pull the videos, according to the document, was extended to YouTube’s executive leadership.
“Our policies prohibit the denial, belittling or triviality of well-documented acts of violence, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” the company said in an email.
Although Google has not closed its office in Russia, the company has quietly begun moving its employees out of the country in recent weeks, according to people familiar with the decision who have asked not to be identified when discussing security issues. A Google spokesman declined to comment.
Since launching his aggression in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has censored independent press in the country in an attempt to control information about the war, as well as punishing civilians who go against the government’s description of the attack. He came after US social media companies. On Monday, Russia banned the services of Facebook and Instagram, the meta platform, and called them “extremist” organizations, which effectively criminalized them. The country has also throttled the performance of the Twitter app.
Putin’s strategy is to portray American social media as an extreme force threatening Russian society. The government’s first threat against YouTube after the aggression was a channel that ran the old Soviet propaganda, not the state media network.
“Optics is very important,” said Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab. “Banning Instagram and YouTube is a very unpopular decision, unless they are presented in a certain light.”
So far, there is no indication that Google’s search products are at risk. Google has overtaken local provider Yandex to become the most used search engine in Russia, according to external measurement companies. And YouTube is a popular place for everyday Russians, as well as Putin cheerleaders and critics, to watch and post videos online.
Google shut down its ad business in Russia in early March, saying it was complying with all sanctions requirements. But the company “retains its core services in the country, such as search and mapping, to provide access to global information and perspectives,” Kent Walker, Google’s chief legal officer, wrote in a blog post.
The Russian government was working to streamline the information available on Google before the Ukraine invasion. Last fall, a Russian court forced the Internet giant to remove a voting app from opposition leaders and then imposed daily fines on the company for pulling a YouTube channel from Putin supporters.
On Friday, Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, accused YouTube of running advertisements calling for sabotage of Russia and Belarus’ railway systems. The agency said the content “clearly demonstrates Google’s anti-Russian stance” and said the company’s behavior was “of a terrorist nature.” (A YouTube spokesperson said the company had removed the ads in violation of its policy.)
Since the Russian aggression, Google has become more aggressive in controlling pro-Russian media. YouTube first banned state-backed outlets like RT outside Russia. Google has also removed them from the news search.
YouTube said on March 11 that it had removed more than 1,000 channels related to the attack, which violated its content policy. According to someone familiar with the discussion, YouTube operators are personally concerned that pulling RT and other state-sponsored networks could lead to sanctions in the country.
Russia could ban YouTube this week, state-backed news agency RIA Novosti reported on Friday.
Meanwhile, Google has been working behind the scenes to protect its employees. Google’s Moscow office had 244 people, according to one person familiar with the statistics, and helped those interested in relocating this month. Google has laid off employees in Ukraine, where the company employs about 50 people in Kiev, another said.
According to an internal Google bulletin viewed by Bloomberg News, the company informed employees that its employees were working around the clock to provide “expert safety and security, as well as other assistance” to Ukrainian workers.
Google’s efforts to make money from Russia, but not its consumer products, have not gone smoothly. According to someone familiar with the situation, Russian YouTube makers who no longer receive advertising revenue from their videos have blocked the company’s support channels with angry threats and intimidation. The company says it continues to provide support for manufacturers.
The popularity of YouTube could further prompt Russian authorities to suspend the service. On the other hand, according to Brookings, the country’s new tough media law against internal critics could achieve the goals of cracking down on dissent as well as a complete ban on video sites. “It can be very effective in polishing YouTube,” he said.
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