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Google Stays Silent On Russia’s Growing Internet Threats

Hi, it’s Mark Bergen. Google’s decision to pull a protest election app from Russia before the election is significant in some surprising ways, but first…

Russia tightens its grip on the internet

No nation asks Google to scrub more from the internet than Russia. Over the past decade, Russian officials have requested the removal of nearly 1 million web pages, documents, apps and videos, mostly for reasons Google categorizes as “copyright” or “national security.”

Last week, Russia made another request. Russian officials demanded Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Apple Inc. pull a voting app from Alexey Navalny, a jailed politician, that recommends a slate of candidates opposing President Vladimir Putin. A Russian court had ruled Navalny’s app was “extremist” and requested its removal from app stores in the country. The companies complied.

It was an unprecedented intervention, and an alarming one for those who see Russia as a growing threat to internet freedoms. Armed men reportedly spent “several hours” inside Google’s Moscow office last week to enforce the order, which came with a threat to arrest Russian staff if the company didn’t comply. Some Google employees protested the decision. Historically, Google officials have often spoken out about attacks on the open web—and the company’s position as its defender—but Google has said nothing officially about the recent Russian incident.

Also quiet is the person from Google’s history who once had strong opinions on the topic: Sergey Brin.

As a child, Google’s co-founder fled Soviet Russia, where his Jewish family faced discrimination. Brin’s history became Google lore and an explanation for the search engine’s antipathy to government meddling in online information. Brin was presented as Google’s moral backbone. When asked to expound on Google’s “Don’t be evil” creed, former chief executive Eric Schmidt once replied, “Evil is what Sergey says is evil.” After China demanded more censorship (and hacked Google), Brin led the charge to exit the country. When Google left in 2010, Brin explained the decision citing childhood experience. “It has definitely shaped my views, and some of my company’s views,” he told the New York Times.

Some Google employees see disturbing echoes of the China tensions in the situation with Russia, particularly since Putin returned to power in 2012. While Russia doesn’t require heavily censored search, like China, it has become more assertive in its control of the web. In 2017, Russia passed an expansive internet law that gave its agencies more room to ask for take downs in search. In 2020, Russia requested more than 788,000 web pages be yanked from search results, double the amount from 2018, according to Google’s published figures.

Russia isn’t a huge market for Google, but there’s potential—research firm EMarketer forecasts Russian digital advertising to grow 14% next year to $4.4 billion. (Google doesn’t disclose its sales there.) A local search engine, Yandex, provides real competition. And YouTube viewership is big in Russia.

Google does partner with Russian digital media companies, including one owned by entities close to the Kremlin, according to research from Omelas, a national security company. That’s evidence of the state’s tighter control over media and online activity, said Ben Dubow, president of Omelas who previously worked at Google. “As far as I know,” he added, “YouTube and Google have never really pushed back in a meaningful way.” Google declined to comment.

It is true that Russia’s political opposition, kneecapped on state media, has relied on YouTube to broadcast its messages and Navalny still runs a popular YouTube channel. Google shut a research facility in St. Petersburg in 2014, and it hasn’t expanded in Russia like it has in India and other markets. But Google may soon be forced into more decisive action. Russian officials have promised to fine U.S. tech companies up to 20% of local revenue if they don’t comply with moderation demands. Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Apple all have declined to comment on the potential fines.

It’s not clear whether Brin’s views on government control are still shaping Google’s views. Former colleagues say Brin became less involved with geopolitical issues a decade ago, when he shifted to work on Google’s research lab, X. In 2019, Brin and co-founder Larry Page left the company, although the pair remain majority shareholders and board members. Brin didn’t respond to an email this week asking for comment.

Back in 2010, when Brin appeared in public, he sounded optimistic about places where governments drew tighter fists around the web. “I think that in the long term, they are going to have to open,” he said. That could be longer term than many imagined. —Mark Bergen

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