Just as 2021 closed out, the Kremlin massively escalated its pressure campaign against American tech companies by issuing its largest-ever fines of U.S. tech firms: $100 million to Google and $27 million to Facebook for what it called a “systemic failure to remove banned content.” These figures blew previous fines, typically only tens or a few hundred thousand dollars, out of the water and mark a significant escalation in the Kremlin’s efforts to bring Big Tech to heel. They also illustrate the coercive tactics in the Kremlin toolkit—which appear to be working against at least one major technology firm.
In September, the Russian government sent letters to Apple and Google, demanding they delete a mobile app created by opposition leader Alexey Navalny to identify non-Kremlin-backed candidates with the greatest chance of election victory. Apple and Google initially refused. With a national election looming that month, Moscow ramped up the pressure: It called in the U.S. ambassador to berate him about “election interference”; it summoned representatives from Apple and Google’s new local offices to parliament and named specific employees the state would prosecute; and it sent masked, armed thugs to hang around Google’s Moscow office. Sure enough, both companies removed the Navalny app by the end of that week.
Then, in October, the Russian government—specifically, the State Duma Committee on Security and Anti-Corruption, part of Russia’s lower house of parliament—met with Google leadership and handed over a long list of additional demands. Parliament officials kicked off the meeting with a frequent Kremlin talking point that falsely equated Google’s provision of services to regime critics in Russia (e.g., to Navalny) with “interference” in the Russian electoral process.
The Russian officials then issued several demands: that Google stop YouTube users in Russia from questioning election results; comply with all censorship orders, including what Russia calls “extremist” (often, just political) content; restore RT’s German accounts (which YouTube had recently blocked for spreading COVID disinformation); and alter Google Maps in Russia to comply with the Kremlin’s desired view of the world, including to reflect the Russian government’s illegal annexation of Crimea. The Duma also reiterated that Google must have an office on the ground in Russia, per a law passed in 2021 and entered into effect on Jan. 1. The goal of the law is to make foreign tech companies with over 500,000 daily Russian users—from Spotify to Pinterest to Google—open offices in Russia, so that the Russian government can threaten and coerce employees on the ground.
Google’s response to these demands, at least for now, appears to be a mixed bag. For instance, the Google blog post on the meeting said that Google does not take sides in countries’ territorial disputes—even though “not taking a side” is, in fact, taking a side—and that Crimea is displayed for Russian users in accordance with local laws on state borders. It also said that Google paid all fines issued to it. However, Google did not budge on the suspension of Russian state-linked accounts in other countries; the blog defended, for example, the suspension of RT’s German YouTube channel because it was spreading COVID-19 disinformation. Now, the Kremlin has fined Google a record $100 million for not complying with its takedown orders.
All of this matters for Russian citizens and for global internet freedom developments.
YouTube is by far the most popular internet platform in Russia, even more than “Russian Facebook” VK. The Kremlin’s pressure campaign against Google—which has already included unilaterally blocking a Google Doc used by Navalny and threatening Google employees to get the app deleted for users in Russia—could undermine Russians’ ability to access independent news reporting and other citizens’ speech. This is no accident. YouTube is full of content that infuriates the Kremlin; in fact, the most popular video on Russian YouTube in 2021 was Navalny’s investigation into Putin’s $1.3 billion palace, allegedly built with laundered money. The video was viewed more than 119 million times and helped catalyze protests against state corruption and Navalny’s subsequent jailing.
Russia’s pressure tactics offer a less-technical, more traditionally coercive alternative to Beijing’s rather technical internet control model. Recent developments indicate Moscow’s approach may be working.
Other companies, like WhatsApp and Facebook, appear to be keeping their heads down and complying with smaller fines and local office requirements as well. Yet Google’s current dilemma shows that appeasement may not be a viable long-term approach. The more that Big Tech companies are entangled with Putin’s highest-priority issues, like opposition movements and the dissemination of Putin-critical information, the more the Russian government will prioritize making these companies bend the knee. This will mean more censorship and surveillance demands made directly to companies; increased fines from Kremlin-controlled courts; and simultaneous harassment, intimidation, and threats against company employees on the ground.
When the Kremlin called Apple and Google’s censorship resistance “election interference,” that wasn’t just propaganda. It wasn’t saber-rattling, either. Putin and his inner circle genuinely see U.S. internet companies as arms of the American state, hence why Apple and Google’s initial response prompted Kremlin claims—as deluded and conspiratorial as they are—that Washington was interfering in Russian politics. This view is an extension of Putin’s overall mindset vis-à-vis opposition movements, which cannot possibly be the product of individual agency and instead are overtly or covertly supported by foreign powers.
Debates over American tech companies operating in authoritarian regimes can become quite Manichean—everything is portrayed as black-and-white, with companies cast as either supporting or undermining a dictator. Certainly, in some cases, these firms’ actions are unacceptable, as when Amazon cooperated with Chinese censorship and propaganda purely to sell goods and services, which (unlike YouTube) do not fall under the category of distributing news and opinions to a country’s citizens. But in many cases, as in Russia, companies are navigating complex decisions about how to push back against demands where possible, and at what point they cannot remain in a market without routine, serious compromise with an authoritarian state.
Simultaneously, however, these companies are driven by profit. And many tech firms complying with new local office requirements—a tool of Kremlin coercion—do not adequately prepare for the scenario where their employees are threatened or harmed because executives, including those outside Russia, will not comply with state demands. Some of these companies also choose to comply with local office requirements in the first place, rather than, for example, investing those resources in making sure their services are available in Russia through virtual private networks.
But if these enormous, end-of-year fines are any indication, it may not be long before some American tech companies are forced to fully bend the knee or leave Russia altogether.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.