Google and Meta closing ads in Russia helped Putin, argues Navalny

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Jailed Kremlin critic, Alexey Navalny, has hit out at adtech giants Meta and Google for shutting off advertising inside Russia following the country's invasion of Ukraine which he argues has been a huge boon to Putin's regime by making it harder for the opposition to get out anti-war messaging.

The remarks came after Navalny was asked to address a conference on democracy. Not in person of course as he remains incarcerated in Russia -- rather he posted the comments on his website.

"It would be downright banal to say that the new information world can be both a boon for democracy and a huge bane. Nevertheless, it is so," he writes. "Our organization has built all its activities on information technology and has achieved serious success with it, even when it was practically outlawed. And information technology is being actively used by the Kremlin to arrest participants in protest rallies. It is proudly claimed that all of them will be recognized even with their faces covered.

"The internet gives us the ability to circumvent censorship. Yet, at the same time, Google and Meta, by shutting down their advertising in Russia, have deprived the opposition of the opportunity to conduct anti-war campaigns, giving a grandiose gift to Putin."

Navalny has previously called for Meta and Google to allow their adtech to be weaponized against Putin's propaganda machine -- arguing that highly scalable ad targeting tools could be used to circumvent restrictions on access to free information imposed by the regime as a way to show Russian citizens the bloody reality of the "special military operation" in Ukraine.

Now, in thinly veiled criticism of the tech giants -- which would presumably be delivered in a sarcastic tone if his address were being given in person -- Navalny writes: "Should the internet giants continue to pretend that it's 'just business' for them and act like 'neutral platforms'? Should they continue to claim that social network users in the United States and Eritrea, in Denmark and Russia, should operate under the same rules? How should the internet treat government directives, given that Norway and Uganda seem to have slightly different ideas about the role of the internet and democracy?

"It's all very complicated and very controversial, and it all needs to be discussed while keeping in mind that the discussion should also lead to solutions."

"We love technology. We love social networks. We want to live in a free informational society. So let's figure out how to keep the bad guys from using the information society to drive their nations and all of us into the dark ages," he adds.

Meta and Google were contacted for a response to the criticism but at the time of writing neither had sent comment.

The tech industry's response to the war in Ukraine remains patchy, with Western companies increasingly closing down services inside Russia -- but not all their services.

For example, despite shuttering advertising inside Russia, Meta and Google have not shut down access to their social platforms, Facebook and YouTube -- likely as they would argue these services help Russians access independent information vs. the state-controlled propaganda that fills traditional broadcast media channels in the country.

In Facebook's case, it's an argument that was bolstered when Russia's internet regulator targeted the service soon after the invasion of Ukraine -- initially restricting access; and then, in early March, announcing that Facebook would be blocked after the company had restricted access to a number of state-linked media outlets.

Interestingly, though, Google-owned YouTube appears to have escaped a direct state block -- although it has received plenty of warnings from Russia's internet regulator in recent months, including for distributing "anti-Russian ads."

This discrepancy suggests the Kremlin continues (for now) to view YouTube as an important conduit for its own propaganda -- likely owing to the platform's huge popularity in Russia, where use of YouTube outstrips locally developed alternatives (like GazProm Media-owned Rutube), which would be far easier for Putin's regime to censor.

This is not the case for Facebook -- where the leading local alternative, VK.com, has been massively popular for years -- making it easier for the Kremlin to block access to the Western equivalent since Russians have less incentive to try to circumvent a block by using a VPN.

However if the Kremlin is intent on shaping citizens' access to digital information over the long haul it may not be content to let YouTube's popularity stand -- and could opt to use technical means to degrade access while actively promoting local alternatives, as a strategy to drive usage of local rivals until they're big enough to supplant the influence of the foreign giant. (And, indeed, reports have suggested the Kremlin is sinking money into Rutube.)

Given YouTube's ongoing influence in Russia -- coupled with rising threats from Russia's state regulator that YouTube remove 'banned content' or face fines and/or a slowdown of the service -- Navalny may have, at least, an overarching point that Google risks playing right into Putin's hands.

The jailed opposition politician has also been even more critical of local search giant, Yandex -- over its equivalent service to Google News which operates in a regulatory regime that requires it aggregate only state-approved media sources, allowing the Kremlin to shape the narrative it presents to the millions of Russians who visit a search portal homepage where this News feed is displayed.

Back in April, Yandex announced that it had signed a deal to sell News and another media property, called Zen, to VK -- but it remains to be seen how, or indeed whether, this ownership change will make any difference to the state-controlled news narrative Russians are routinely exposed to when they visit popular local services.

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