Google and Russia’s Delicate Dance

“The seizure by Russian authorities of Google Russia’s bank account has rendered the operation of our Russian office 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 to CNN Business.

However, Google failed to pull out of Russia completely, and Russia failed to force it to do so.

“Russians 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 total ban on YouTube – one of Russia’s most popular online services. “We have no intention of blocking YouTube,” Shadayev was quoted as saying by Russian news agency Interfax. “Whenever we block anything, we must clearly understand that no harm will be done to our users,” he added.

“Last Man Standing”

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For Google, there is clear strategic value in keeping its services active in a country of 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 maintain in hopes of ending the war and lifting sanctions,” said Mariëlle Wijermars, assistant professor of cybersecurity and policy. at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, whose work focuses on Russian Internet policy. “Given Russia’s efforts to establish digital sovereignty, it may be difficult to re-enter the market. »

But some internet governance experts argue that 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. “It is extremely important that information flow to dissidents in Russia, or people who want information from a source other than state media. »

Google did not respond to questions about its motives for keeping its services active in Russia, but YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki laid out last week 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, Switzerland. “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 citizens know what’s going on and have perspectives of the world. outside. »

YouTube is used by about three-quarters of Russia’s online population, or more than 77 million people, according to Insider Intelligence estimates. Despite continuous warnings from the Russian government to remove the 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,” 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 broader battle between an authoritarian government and a Western technology company that provides one of the last remaining spaces for free expression in Russia.” (Google is one of several companies that CEPA receives “a small part” of its funding from 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 more restricted and local Russian internet.

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 being taken down.

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

Unlike local social network VK and search engine Yandex, there are no comparable local alternatives to YouTube in Russia (government-backed RuTube failed to achieve 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 clout. »

Russian opposition leader wants to fight Vladimir Putin with YouTube ads

YouTube isn’t the only popular Western tech platform that Russia has left alone. WhatsApp, the mobile messenger 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 forces YouTube out,” 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 out of completely. »

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