May 26, 2022

In Russia’s latest move to censor Western internet services since it started the war by invading Ukraine, Google has confirmed that Russians are having trouble accessing its Google News news aggregator service in the country.

This follows an earlier report by the Interfax news agency that said the service had been blocked by Russian internet censor Roskomnadzor.

“We have confirmed that some people are having problems accessing the Google News app and website in Russia, and this is not due to technical issues on our end,” a Google spokesperson told us, confirming that the news service was sanctioned. (A contact in Russia also told us that the service was blocked.)

“We have worked hard to ensure that information services such as news are available to Russian residents for as long as possible,” the search giant said.

Last week, Roskomnadzor threatened Google, alleging that YouTube ads were used to spread “information attacks” threatening Russian citizens and that the company was being accused by the government of “terrorist” activities. such a platform.

This threat sounded like Russia predated the blocking of YouTube. However, at the time of writing, the video sharing platform does not seem to have any technical limitations.

We contacted YouTube to confirm the status of the service in Russia. The platform did not respond at the time of publication, but a Google spokesperson suggested that the company had not yet seen anything that could affect YouTube. (Our contact in Russia also told us that YouTube is still available to them.)

In recent weeks, as the war in Ukraine continues, the Kremlin has tightened local censorship of speech, for example by passing a law punishing the spread of “false” information about the Russian military for 15 years. .

This Kremlin crackdown on free speech makes it extremely risky for Russian news companies to operate—unless they censor content from the likes of Putin.

it does It is even more important for Russians to have access to outside news sources that are not filtered by the regime. However, access to the main Western Internet platforms in Russia is also practically closed, since technical restrictions apply to more foreign services.

In recent weeks, Russia has blocked several Western social networks, cutting off access to Facebook and Instagram, after invading Ukraine.

Roskomnadzor accused parent company Meta of censoring Russian state media on Facebook and changing policies on its social platforms, which the regime allegedly allowed for hate speech threatening Russian citizens. (Meta denied this, stating that users can only express their strong feelings about the war in Ukrainian.)

Twitter also faced sanctions after Russia invaded Ukraine.

While Virtual private networks are also subject to blocking so that Russians cannot bypass the censorship of services.

Meanwhile, local Internet giant Yandex, which operates a news aggregator product similar to Google News, has tried to operate outside of Russia, claiming to be neutral even though it claims to have to comply with local laws. sales planning As we reported earlier, the media is bad and the news is off the charts.

Yandex’s news aggregator operates in accordance with the Kremlin’s rules governing media licensing in the country, and thus establishes a list of sources that such services can link to, allowing management to shape the main narrative that is then followed.

That’s why Yandex is being criticized for helping fuel Putin’s propaganda against Ukraine, which contributed to the EU’s decision last week to punish a prominent business leader.

According to our sources, a possible precursor to Yandex.News and its blogging and content recommendation platform Zen is the Russian social media giant VKontakte, which is owned by Mail.ru, a local internet giant that reportedly has close ties to the Kremlin. .

Any possibility that news aggregator Yandex could be freed from Putin’s campaign territory — say, if it was sold to a foreign buyer — seems almost impossible, since the Kremlin has veto power over important business decisions (after Yandex’s corporate reorganization in 2019).

Whoever ultimately owns the product, given that Google News is now limited to Russia, rival news aggregator Yandex will face even less competition for Russian eyes – highlighting the Kremlin’s AI-assisted propaganda curation and shaping the history of the war in Ukraine. , an even greater impact. to public opinion.

Google Ads Policy Changes

In another war in Ukraine involving Google, Reuters reported yesterday that Alphabet’s parent company has changed its advertising policy and no longer allows ads to be shown on its network (and on all of its web resources, including YouTube) along with content. does not allow. Its goal is to take advantage of, deny or ignore the war in Ukraine.

Google confirmed the change without providing more details – at first it simply reiterated its previous statement:

“We can confirm that we are taking additional steps to bring clarity and, in some cases, are expanding our monetization rules related to the war in Ukraine. It is based on our current restrictions on Russian state media and our continued use of material that incites violence or denies the tragic events. ,

The Reuters report also cites an email to verified publishers in which Google provides an example of a policy explanation saying that ads, “stating that the victims are responsible for their tragedy,” will not be displayed with. As are claims that Ukraine is committing genocide or deliberately attacks its own citizens.”

Google’s existing advertising and monetization policies already contain restrictions designed to prevent ads with dangerous or harmful content, such as dangerous or offensive content, which strictly prohibits:

  • Content that incites and incites hatred or encourages hatred towards a group of people.
  • Content that denies the existence of tragic events or accuses the victims of a tragedy of being unfortunate actors.

According to Google, the latest ad policy update will help clarify and, in some cases, expand the current enforcement of conflict-related content in Ukraine.

In addition, it states that it has a global ad-related incident that will block conflict-related ads and try to take advantage of the situation.

Given Roskomnadzor’s recent threat to Google regarding YouTube ads, the timing of the clarification of this policy and the extent of enforcement is interesting.

Google may hope to appease Russia (and avoid blocking YouTube) by limiting targeted ads related to the war in Ukraine, offsetting the risk of a serious backlash, for example if it is accused of submitting to the Kremlin’s censorship mandate by selectively highlighting an example that contradicts Russian propaganda (video, in where Ukrainians blame the victim).

Understandably, working in and around Russia is becoming more of a challenge for Western platforms, even if they are not officially blocked by Russia.

In terms of ad sales, Google recently announced that it is suspending its own ad sales in Russia, for example, as another step to limit its presence in the market even though it originally launched in Russia. Allowing advertisers to use their devices to serve ads. outside. Give Russia. These ad sales were also later put on hold when Google was forced to suspend billing for its Play mobile app store and YouTube paid services in Russia, an event that sparked Western protests against Russian banks. Sanctions are to blame.

Earlier this month, the European Union also imposed wide-ranging restrictions on Russian state media, RT and Sputnik, and banned their content from being distributed online by law.

This has resulted in platforms like YouTube blocking channels; Initially only EU geo-blocking, but later Google expanded it to a global blocking of Russian state-owned media on YouTube. (However, it doesn’t look like Google has blocked the RT and Sputnik apps from its Play Store globally, instead restricting their access in Europe.)

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