After Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Google formed its exit strategy from Russia, suspending all ads by March, then blocking Play Store app sales and removing most of its employees by May. After that, Google has only continued to provide free services to Russian Internet users, like Search, Gmail, Maps, or YouTube, and now, Google might be paying big for that decision.
This week, Russian regulator Roskomnadzor announced that a Russian court ordered the tech giant to pay its steepest fine yet since the Ukraine war started, citing Google’s “repeated failure” to remove “prohibited content” deemed “fake.” Unless Google manages to appeal the decision, it will have to fork over approximately $374 million for not restricting content that goes against Russian interests. Examples include content discrediting the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, promoting extremism, or inciting young people to join mass protests (which Russia banned).
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on a possible appeal, but the company knew a fine was coming. It just perhaps didn’t know how large a fine. Roskomnadzor warned Google last month that it would be fined 5 to 10 percent of its annual turnover, but TechCrunch estimates that ultimately “the new fine would be around 15 percent of the company’s annual turnover.” (Roskomnadzor did not immediately respond to Ars’ request to clarify the percent of Google’s annual turnover the fee represents.)
It’s not yet clear if Google will pay up or resist the order. Previously, in December 2021, Russia ordered Google to pay a $98 million fine—which Reuters reported was “the first revenue-based fine of its kind in Russia.” Roskomnadzor says that Google paid that previous fine, and since then, there were some other small fines reported.
The latest court order also issued additional penalties for Google’s “systematic violations of Russian law.” These include “coercive measures” designed to put pressure on Google to comply with laws, including labels on YouTube videos to inform Internet users about violations of Russian law, and a “ban on distributing advertising of the corporation.”
Resisting propaganda on YouTube
Google’s repeated failure to remove content is part of the company’s continued resistance to turn YouTube into a Russian propaganda tool. The private nonprofit RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, which strives to deliver news in countries where free press is restricted, reported that “Roskomnadzor ordered media across the country to publish only information about the war in Ukraine provided by official sources.” It subsequently forbid any media reporting on Western governments referring to the conflict as a war—preferring the term “special military operation”—or calling the invasion of Ukraine “unjustified and unprovoked.”
That is the definition of propaganda: limiting what’s published to only one political viewpoint. Russia’s media restrictions assist Russian President Vladimir Putin in his efforts to control the narrative on the Ukraine war. Earlier this year, he sought to expand legal repercussions against anything he deemed “fake news” by establishing a new Russian law that made any “public dissemination of deliberately false information” about the military that causes “serious consequence” punishable by imprisonment up to 15 years.
Earlier this year, YouTube removed more than 9,000 channels relating to the Russia-Ukraine war—just not the videos that Russia wanted gone. At that time, YouTube’s chief product officer, Neal Mohan, told the Guardian that it removed more than 70,000 videos from the platform, including suspending channels hosted by pro-Kremlin journalist Vladimir Solovyov and multiple channels associated with Russia’s Ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs because they violated YouTube policy.
Mohan said the overwhelming majority of videos removed were “coming from Russian government, or Russian actors on behalf of the Russian government,” and referred to the invasion of Ukraine as a “liberation mission” rather than an act of violence or war. Failing to acknowledge a major violent event broke a YouTube policy established in 2019 that is designed to stop hate speech and originally was prompted to prevent Holocaust-denial videos from being posted.
“We have a major violent events policy and that applies to things like denial of major violent events: everything from the Holocaust to Sandy Hook,” Mohan told the Guardian. “And of course, what’s happening in Ukraine is a major violent event. And so we’ve used that policy to take unprecedented action.”
That “unprecedented action” specifically went against Putin’s directive to only publish media in Russia from official sources discussing the Ukraine war. On Monday, Putin complained about tech companies evacuating Russia, saying that the “almost-complete closure of access to foreign hi-tech products is being deliberately, intentionally used against” Russia. He said rather than bend to tech companies’ pressure to end the war, his plan is to continue building up Russia’s own technology sector.