Google, one of the few American corporate giants still operating in Russia, is poised to lose one of its biggest footholds in the country as tensions with the Kremlin continue to escalate.
Alphabet Inc.’s Google shut its advertising business in Russia while maintaining its popular consumer services, such as YouTube. But the video service has become a significant source of tension with the government.
YouTube banned a channel from Russia’s Ministry of Defence, according to an internal document reviewed by Bloomberg – the latest in a series of actions that Googlers expect to trigger a shutdown in the country.
YouTube last week barred Russia’s military from posting on the video site for seven days after the ministry labeled its invasion of Ukraine a "liberation mission" in two videos, which the company removed, according to the document. The decision to pull the videos was escalated to YouTube’s executive leadership, according to the document.
"Our policies prohibit content denying, minimising or trivialising well-documented violent events, including Russia’s invasion in Ukraine,” the company said in an email.
While Google hasn’t shut its office in Russia, the company has begun quietly moving its staff from the country in recent weeks, according to people familiar with the decisions who asked not to be identified discussing security matters.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment.
Since launching his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has censored independent press in the country in an effort to control information about the war, while punishing citizens who go against the government’s narrative about the invasion.
He’s come after US social media companies, too. On Monday, Russia banned Facebook and Instagram, services from Meta Platforms Inc., and called them "extremist” organisations, which effectively criminalises them. The country has also throttled the performance of Twitter Inc.’s app.
Putin’s tactic has been to paint American social media as extreme forces threatening Russian society. The government’s first threat against YouTube since the invasion was about a channel that ran old Soviet propaganda, not state media networks.
"Optics are very important,” said Emerson Brooking, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab. "The banning of Instagram and YouTube are very unpopular decisions, unless they’re presented in a certain light.”
So far, there are no indications Google’s search product is at risk. Google remains the most-used search engine in Russia, beating local provider Yandex NV, according to outside measurement firms. And YouTube is a popular spot for everyday Russians, as well as Putin cheerleaders and critics, to watch and post videos online.
Google halted its advertising business in Russia in early March and has said it is complying with all sanctions requirements. But the company kept its major services, such as search and maps, in the country "to provide access to global information and perspectives,” Kent Walker, Google’s chief legal officer, wrote in a blog post.
The Russian government had been working to tailor the information available on Google well before the Ukraine invasion. Last fall, Russian courts forced the internet giant to remove a voting app from opposition leaders and then levied a daily, increasing fine against the company for pulling a YouTube channel from a Putin supporter.
On Friday, Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, accused YouTube of running commercials calling for sabotage of railways systems in Russia and Belarus. The agency said the content "clearly demonstrates the anti-Russian position” of Google and said the company’s behavior was of a "terrorist nature.” (A YouTube spokesperson said the company removed the ads for violating its policies.)
Since Russia’s invasion, Google has become more aggressive in moderating pro-Russian media. YouTube first restricted state-backed outlets, such as RT, banning them outside of Russia. Google has also removed them from news searches.
YouTube said on March 11 it has removed more than 1,000 channels related to the invasion that violate its content policies. YouTube managers privately worried that pulling RT and other state-sponsored networks would prompt a ban in the country, according to one person familiar with the discussions.
Russia could ban YouTube this week, state-backed news agency RIA Novosti reported Friday.
Meanwhile, Google has worked behind the scenes to protect its staff. Google had 244 people based in its Moscow office, according to a person familiar with the figures, and has assisted those interested in relocating this month.
Google also removed staff from Ukraine, where the company employed around 50 people in Kyiv, another person said. According to an internal Google bulletin viewed by Bloomberg News, the company notified staff that its personnel were "are working around the clock to provide specialist safety and security, as well as other support” to employees in Ukraine.
Google’s effort to pull its money-making from Russia, but not its consumer products, hasn’t gone smoothly. Russian YouTube creators who are no longer getting advertising revenue from their videos clogged the company’s support channels with angry tirades and threats, according to one person familiar with the situation.
The company said it is continuing to provide support for creators. YouTube’s popularity may be giving Russian authorities more pause about shutting down the service.
On the other hand, the nation’s new strict media laws against internal critics may accomplish the goals of cracking down on dissent as well as an outright ban of the video site, according to Brooking. "That might be very effective in policing YouTube,” he said. – Bloomberg