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Russian officials warn Google not to ‘meddle’ in elections by hosting Navalny videos

Aleksei Navalny (Evgeny Feldman/Novaya Gazeta/Wikimedia)
September 05, 2018
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This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russian officials say they have warned U.S. Internet giant Google against “meddling” in local elections scheduled for this weekend by allowing Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny to post videos calling for mass protests on YouTube.

Representatives of Russia’s election commission, the Prosecutor-General’s Office, and the state Internet watchdog discussed their grievances against Google, which owns YouTube, during a meeting of Russia’s upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, on September 4.

The officials alleged that Navalny uses YouTube to disseminate information that is “illegal” in Russia, and warned that Google may be prosecuted if it does not act to stop this.

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Navalny has used his YouTube channel [which has more than 2 million subscribers] to urge Russians to protest against deeply unpopular pension reforms on September 9, the same day that several Russian regions and Moscow are scheduled to elect regional and local officials. [His videos often get millions of views apiece.]

Central Election Commission member Aleksandr Klyukin said the commission sent an official letter to Larry Page, the CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, regarding Navalny’s use of YouTube.

“We informed Google that such events on election day will lead to massive violation of the law” because political campaigning is banned on election day, he said.

“Meddling by a foreign company in our election is not permitted,” he said.

Klyukin in his remarks suggested that Google was being used as a tool to influence elections by the U.S. government, though Google is not owned or controlled by the government.

The warning to Google by Russian officials comes at a time when the United States has imposed sanctions on the Russian government over allegations that it “meddled” in U.S. elections.

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U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has also charged several Russian intelligence officials with hacking and leaking Democratic Party documents in what he alleges was a conspiracy to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on the “meddling” accusations, but said the company “reviews all valid requests from government institutions.”

Navalny associate Leonid Volkov said that the upcoming protest action won’t violate election laws since its aim is not to campaign for a particular candidate.

YouTube is “the only channel to inform the masses,” Volkov wrote on Facebook, adding, “All levels of the Russian government…have been ordered to block the protest by any means necessary.”

Ahead of the planned demonstrations, Navalny was sentenced to 30 days in jail for helping to organize an unsanctioned street rally in Moscow in January.

Vadim Subbotin, the deputy chief of Russia’s Internet watchdog, Roskomnadzor, alleged that YouTube “acts as a link in the chain for propaganda of antisocial behavior during Russian elections.”

“Over 40” YouTube channels “constantly call for violating Russian law,” he said.

If Google fails to respond to official complaints, this will be seen as “de facto direct intervention in Russia’s domestic affairs,” he charged.

Aleksei Zhafyarov of the Prosecutor-General’s Office said it had sent an official warning to Google over the “inadmissibility” of violating Russian election law.

“This is a rather serious measure, after which they can be called to account” including via criminal prosecution, he said.

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