In the weeks since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, the Kremlin has received a great deal of attention for blocking Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But less attention has been paid to a years-long information war Russia has been waging on mobile map applications—like Apple Maps and Google Maps. And now that war is coming to a head.
It began in 2014, when the Putin regime illegally invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Ever since, Moscow has pressured foreign companies to change their maps to falsely show Russian users that Crimea is part of Russia instead of Ukraine. In response, Google modified its maps within Russia to show Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. The rest of the world saw Crimea separated from the Ukrainian mainland with a dotted line, denoting Google’s disputed territory classification. Yet the map arguments didn’t end there.
In April 2015, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law criminalizing the use of Soviet and Nazi symbols in the country and initiated the process of removing them; the law also criminalized sympathy for communism. While the Ukrainian government got to work in the physical realm—such as using a crane to remove a statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police—others came into compliance in the digital. After Kyiv began changing Ukrainian street and location names per the new law, Google updated its online map of Crimea to reflect those changes. The Kremlin was furious. Russia’s Foreign Ministry called the law a use of “totalitarian methods” to attack “freedom of the press, opinion, or conscience” and wipe out the “heroic past of the people of Ukraine.” Dmitry Polonsky, deputy chairman of the Council of Crimean Ministers—a group the Kremlin forcibly overtook in 2014—called Google’s digital updates “topographical cretinism.” Russia has its own maps services, Polonsky said; “we do not have to use Google.”
During this time, Apple remained largely silent. In 2014, it modified its maps after Russia’s invasion to show Crimea to all its users as disputed territory, and then in November 2019, it updated maps within Russia to falsely show Crimea as part of the country. Bing Maps, for its part (though of course not even comparable in usage to Apple or Google Maps), still displayed Crimea globally as part of Ukraine. And as expected, Yandex, Russia’s internet and search giant, reflected the Kremlin’s bogus view that Crimea, illegally invaded and annexed, was part of Russia—clearly depicting this myth with bright, bold colors.
Last September, the Kremlin coerced Google and Apple, under the threat of physical violence, into censoring an app made by Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny which showed voters the challengers most likely to beat Kremlin-party candidates. Then, in October, Moscow gave Google a list of several demands. For unclear reasons, as part of those demands, the Russian government said it was unhappy with Google’s map compliance and demanded it fully reflect its annexation of Crimea to Russians—which Google had already done in 2015, suggesting Kremlin frustration with citizen workarounds or with Google’s decision to use the street names determined by the Ukrainian government. The company said in a blog following the meeting that it would come into compliance (with whatever issue was supposedly in question), as it does not take sides in territorial disputes (even though “not taking a side” is, in fact, taking a side).
Soon after Putin’s war on Ukraine began, Apple changed its map display for users not in Russia to show Crimea as part of Ukraine—rather than a disputed territory as previously depicted. It has refused to comment on its current policy for users opening Apple Maps within Russia. Meanwhile, Google still displays Crimea to global users as part of disputed territory. The same appears to be true for users within Russia.
On top of this, some of these tech companies have changed other map features. Immediately following the Russian attack in February, Google temporarily disabled Google Maps’ real-time traffic layer and its real-time information on how busy stores, restaurants, and other locations are in Ukraine. The company did so out of concern that Russian forces could exploit this information to threaten Ukrainians’ safety—a decision that clearly stands to protect the Ukrainian people.
Moscow’s information war on mobile maps underscores that companies may need better policies to deal with these kinds of events. Apple and Google, for example, appeared to have clear policies—albeit playing into a false idea of “neutrality”—around how to mark disputed territories in years past. Yet when the Putin regime launched an all-out war on Ukraine, and Western governments responded with an array of sanctions, Apple decided it could no longer display the maps as it had—raising questions about what, in general, prompts companies to suddenly undo a years-long “disputed territory” classification and whether those decisions are rooted in comprehensive policies as opposed to ad hoc calculations. Technology companies managing maps need to better develop contingency plans and policies for this kind of war and crisis in the future—and figure out in advance (to the extent possible, at least) how to best respond to promote justice and support the oppressed. Policymakers likewise should think more about maps and other online visualizations and historical records when thinking about information operations, conflicts, and Big Tech power.
But Google, right now, needs to tread carefully in considering decisions like modifying maps viewable to Russians. Historically, Google has bent the knee to the Putin regime repeatedly, from complying with content censorship demands to, foolishly, opening a local office in Russia in 2021 when it was little more than a tool of Kremlin coercion. Its modifying of maps within Russia to reflect Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea is another example.
In the present moment, Google must focus on ensuring YouTube, the most popular social media platform in Russia, remains accessible to Russians while also acting to prevent or mitigate harm to Ukrainians. Google modifying its maps in Russia to show Crimea as part of Ukraine could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and prompts the Russian government to move to block YouTube. While some activists are certain that Putin would never block the platform for fear of angering the Russian public, that option cannot realistically be taken off the table. The Russian government has in recent weeks engaged in an unprecedented crackdown on social media platforms and on domestic civil society in Russia.
Putin appears increasingly paranoid, Russia’s internet censor has called YouTube a tool of Western “information warfare” against the Russian Federation, and the head of the UK’s GCHQ intelligence agency says Putin’s advisers are lying to him about the war in Ukraine out of fear of telling the truth. Most recently, Russia’s Ministry of Science and Higher Education ordered all universities to migrate their YouTube content to Russian video services RuTube and VK Video (the latter run by VK, “Russia’s Facebook”). This may portend further attempts to cut Russians off from access to YouTube.
It is the Russian government’s fault and the Russian government’s fault alone that Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms are blocked in Russia—the Kremlin has agency, and the Kremlin made those decisions. Nonetheless, there are often underappreciated ways that Western internet companies, when dealing with the Putin regime, can frame their decisions to play more or less into the Kremlin’s paranoia and desire to act. And here, doing whatever possible to keep YouTube accessible to Russians, alongside working to protect Ukrainians from harm, is important for Russian civil society and for Russian opposition to the war.
There is much talk about information warfare on social media—but it’s also happening in the online maps space, and companies need better policies to deal with these kinds of crises and events. Maps, after all, are quite literally how people see the world in its entirety.