Future Tense

Google May Be Complying With Russian Internet Censors, but We’re Not Really Sure

A large crowd of people at an opposition rally, waving flags and banners.
An opposition rally took place in Moscow on April 30, 2018, to demand greater internet freedom in Russia. Alexander Nemenov/Getty Images

Only a week ago, the Russian government voted preliminarily on a bill to outlaw fake news. Now, Russian media are implicating Google in federal efforts to censor the Russian internet: On Feb. 7, Russian news outlet Vedomosti reported that Google has removed links to websites banned in Russia from the Google.ru search results. Various Russian media sites report Google has removed from its search results more than 70 percent of links banned by Russia’s media watchdog, Roskomnadzor. But whether that’s true is unclear right now.

The new development is part of an ongoing saga. Beginning in 2017, Roskomnadzor asked search engines to filter results to exclude sites on a ban list. Sites can be included in that registry if they are extremist, glorify suicide, advertise drugs or gambling without a license, contain pornography, or display pirated content. While many companies were willing to meet the agency’s demands, Google ignored the blacklist. Then, in 2018, new legislation began to allow Roskomnadzor to fine search engines that fail to delete links to sites found in its registry. Google still didn’t comply. So, in December 2018, the tech giant was charged approximately $7,500 for refusing to remove blacklisted websites from its search results. The company paid up, though Roskomnadzor press secretary Vadim Ampelonsky told Interfax that Google would be fined again if it didn’t begin removing prohibited content within 30 business days.

Since then, tensions appear to have eased somewhat between Roskomnadzor and the tech company. “Constructive dialogue and cooperation between Roskomnadzor and Google has been re-established. At the moment, we are satisfied with the results of this cooperation,” Ampelonsky said on Feb. 7.

Others were less satisfied. That same day, BuzzFeed News picked up and disseminated the Vedomosti story, reporting that Google is now cooperating with the Russian government and citing Vedomosti’s unnamed source, allegedly a Google employee. But Artem Kozlyuk, director of the RosKomSvoboda project, which fights against internet censorship in Russia, is skeptical about the claim that Google has already removed 73 percent of blacklisted content from its search engine. Kozlyuk’s team tested Google search results when Vedomosti’s report came out. He told Russian website the Insider that they were still able to find links to sites propagating drug use, suicide, and extremism, which should have been banned under Roskomnadzor criteria. Kozlyuk was even able to access the Chechen rebel website Ichkeria.info, which a court order had officially ordered banned.

“Neither I nor my colleagues were able to model a situation in which Google doesn’t show in its search results those links from the registry of banned sites that we checked,” Kozlyuk told Novaya Gazeta. “Seventy-three percent of links that the company allegedly removed is a large number.” (Kozlyuk was speaking in Russian, so I’ve translated here.) Kozlyuk explained that it should have been easy for Roskomsvoboda experts to search for particular subjects or sites that would be blocked on Google Search. However, Google searches they conducted included links for many websites that should have been blocked. The only prohibited category of websites that didn’t appear in Search was pirated movie sites.

Google did not comment on its alleged cooperation with the Russian censor. “We’re committed to enabling access to information for the benefit of our users in Russia and around the world,” a Google spokesperson told me via email.

Vedomosti reports that Google receives a regularly updated list of removal requests. The company then reviews each request and the reason provided for blocking a given site. According to Google’s most recent transparency report, from January to June 2018, the three most frequent reasons behind removal requests in Russia were “regulated goods and services” (11,021 requests), copyright (3,410), and national security (2,159).

It’s been an eventful month for the Russian internet. And there’s more to come: Next week, the Russian Duma will hold the first reading of a bill that, if passed, would isolate Russian networks from the rest of the internet. It’s expected to pass.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.