This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Amid threats of being suspended in Russia, Google has become embroiled in a series of disputes with the Kremlin that may be causing the international technology company to bend to Moscow’s pressure and adhere to its growing demands.
On February 7, Russian media reported that Google has begun to censor search results in Russia after a protracted standoff with the country’s powerful communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor. One anonymous official at the agency claimed the U.S.-based company was blocking some 70 percent of the websites blacklisted by Russia.
Roskomnadzor spokesman Vadim Ampelonsky told state news agency RIA on February 7 that “we have developed a constructive dialogue with Google and this dialogue currently satisfies us.”
Meanwhile, Vasily Piskaryov, the chairman of the Russian Duma’s Security and Anti-Corruption Committee, said after meeting with a Google representative the same day that the company was taking extra measures to ensure its maps in Russia display Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula as Russian territory.
Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries, after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was pushed from power by protests.
Piskaryov said Marina Zhunich, Google’s director for government relations, told him during the Moscow meeting that the “incorrect information” that some Google users in Russia may see was the result of a technical error and that resolving this “was her priority.”
When Crimea is accessed on Google Maps in Russia, Crimea is shown as belonging to Russia — at least most of the time. There are some reports that people see it marked as disputed territory on some smartphones and other devices.
The inconsistency is seemingly responsible for the most recent spat, which dates to January 25 when a Russian lawmaker reported that Google was incorrectly marking Crimea on its maps when viewed within Russia. Parliament speaker Vyacheslav Volodin said lawmakers claimed then that Google was not following Russian law and instructed them to summon a company representative for questioning.
“We have these [legal] options, let’s use them,” he said, according to a video report from the session. “Otherwise they’ll tear another piece [of land] from us and assign it to a different country.”
In response, the search-engine giant told TASS that some users in Russia may see Crimea marked as foreign territory, but that the company’s branch in Russia endeavors to follow Russian law.
“We are doing everything we can to present objective data when it comes to disputed territories,” TASS cited the company as saying on January 25.
But deputies in the Duma were not convinced.
The head of the lower house’s Informational Politics Committee promised to carefully monitor the legality of Google’s operations in Russia.
“A week has passed and we’ve noticed the situation hasn’t changed,” Piskaryov said in his statement. He added that Google has one month to correct the perceived mistake, after which lawmakers will turn to the Prosecutor-General’s Office to determine further measures against the company, RBC reported.
Google did not respond to requests from RFE/RL for comment for this article.
On February 7, the business daily RBC cited the company’s press service repeating verbatim the comments Google made to TASS on January 25.
Steep Rise In Removal Requests
If accurate, Google’s move to censor search results is the latest stage in a protracted battle between the Russian government and the world’s largest Internet search engine, which until now has been reluctant to filter its results in line with Russian demands.
In July 2018, Russia introduced a law mandating fines of up to 700,000 rubles for search engines that fail to censor content blacklisted by Roskomnadzor. Google has since received several warnings and in December the company was fined 500,000 rubles ($10,600) for noncompliance.
Earlier this year, Roskomnadzor issued an official warning that the website may be blocked in Russia, Vedomosti reported.
In its latest Transparency Report on government requests to remove content, Google noted a steep rise in the number of such requests from Russia.
In the first half of 2018, 19,192 were received from Russian authorities, representing over 75 percent of the 25,534 requests made in that six-month period. Almost three-quarters concerned content on YouTube, the video-sharing site owned by Google.
In the latest high-profile case, Ukraine alleged on February 6 that Roskomnadzor was pressuring YouTube to remove a video showing a Crimean Tatar activist being detained on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized and annexed from Ukraine in March 2014.
In a statement, Amnesty International said “Youtube should uphold its responsibilities according to international human rights standards and push back on the Russian government’s censorship demands. YouTube’s stated company values include protecting freedom of expression and freedom of information and we call on them to uphold these values today.”