Google 'pauses' Russian state media monetisation across platforms

Google follows similar moves by its YouTube subsidiary and Facebook. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP, REUTERS) - Google on Saturday (Feb 26) became the latest US tech giant to prevent Russian state media from earning money on its platforms in response to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

It follows similar moves by its YouTube subsidiary and Facebook.

"In response to the war in Ukraine, we are pausing Google monetisation of Russian state-funded media across our platforms," a Google spokesperson said in a statement.

"We're actively monitoring new developments and will take further steps if necessary." The move was revealed hours after YouTube announced it would block certain Russian media channels from monetising their videos, among other restrictions.

"In light of extraordinary circumstances in Ukraine, we're taking a number of actions," a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement.

"Our teams have started to pause the ability for certain channels to monetize on YouTube, including RT's YouTube channels globally," the spokesperson said, referring to the Russian state-funded news outlet.

YouTube channels earn money through ads that appear when users watch their videos.

On Friday, Facebook also said it was banning Russian state media from running ads and monetising through its platform.

Nations around the globe issued broad sanctions against Russian businesses, banks and officials after Moscow invaded Ukraine on Thursday.

"As always, our teams are continuing to monitor closely for new developments, including evaluating what any new sanctions and export controls may mean for YouTube," the platform's spokesperson said.

In addition to restricting monetisation, YouTube added it would limit recommendations to the same channels and is "continuing to actively surface authoritative news content" in Russia- and Ukraine-related search results.

Videos from RT and a number of other channels will also be "restricted" by YouTube, the company said.

At the beginning of February, Germany banned RT, which prompted Russia to close the Moscow bureau of German media outlet Deutsche Welle.

RT, created in 2005 under the name "Russia Today," is regularly accused by Western authorities of contributing to disinformation.

YouTube noted that over the past few days it has removed hundreds of channels, including some for "coordinated deceptive practices," the term the company uses for disinformation.

Russia’s state communications regulator on Sunday said it had written to Alphabet Inc’s Google and demanded that access to Russian media’s YouTube channels be restored on Ukrainian territory.

The regulator, Roskomnadzor, said it wanted all restrictions imposed on the Russian-language YouTube channels of media outlets RBC, TV Zvezda and Sputnik to be removed.

Moscow on Friday said it was partially limiting access to Meta Platforms Inc’s Facebook, accusing it of “censoring” Russian media.

‘Pick a side’

US tech giants are under intense pressure to pick a side regarding Ukraine’s invasion, at once facing calls to stand against Moscow’s internationally condemned war but also Kremlin retribution for resistance.

Services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have a unique power because of their global reach and ubiquity, but they are profit-motivated companies so a stridently principled stand can be bad for business.

Since Moscow attacked its neighbour Ukraine last week, the besieged nation has urged firms from Apple to Google and Netflix to cut off Russia, while Facebook said its service was curbed for refusing to bend to Kremlin demands.

Twitter, which faced fines and slower service last year over government orders to remove certain content, reported on Saturday its network was “being restricted for some people in Russia”. 

“Western companies have provided an online space for Russians to get information about the atrocities their government is committing in Ukraine,” tweeted Ms Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Centre for European Policy Analysis.

“The Kremlin is moving aggressively to hide the truth,” she added.

‘Spreading misinformation’ 

Ukraine’s defiant government, which has urged its people to battle Russian forces, has asked for help from all quarters, including Apple’s CEO Tim Cook.

“I appeal to you... to stop supplying Apple services and products to the Russian Federation, including blocking access to the Apple Store!” Ukraine’s digital minister Mykhailo Fedorov wrote in a letter he posted to Twitter Friday.

Mr Cook, tweeting a day before, wrote that he was “deeply concerned with the situation in Ukraine” and that the company would be supporting local humanitarian efforts.

Big tech companies have struggled with how to deal with authoritarian governments, including Russia, where Google and Apple complied last year with government orders to remove an opposition app and faced outrage.

As the crisis in Ukraine has escalated, tech companies have been accused of not doing all they could to stifle dangerous misinformation regarding the invasion.

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“Your platforms continue to be key vectors for malign actors – including, notably, those affiliated with the Russian government – to not only spread disinformation, but to profit from it,” US Senator Mark Warner wrote to Mr Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent Alphabet, on Friday.

Mr Warner, who also sent letters to Meta, Reddit, Telegram, TikTok and Twitter, went on to accuse YouTube of continuing “to monetise the content of prominent influence actors... publicly connected to Russian influence campaigns”. 

Tech companies have long vaunted themselves as defenders of free speech and democratic values, yet they have also been criticised for reaping many billions in advertising revenue on platforms that can have a harmful impact on users.

The invasion comes at a time when the dominant social media platform, Facebook, has been hit by a historic drop in its value due to worries over a mix of factors like slowing growth and pressure on its key ad business.

But experts urged a principled stand, especially in a case freighted with the gravity of the Ukraine invasion.

“It’s appropriate for American companies to pick sides in geopolitical conflicts, and this should be an easy call,” Mr Alex Stamos, a former chief security officer at Facebook, tweeted on Friday.

Another ex-Facebook worker, Mr Brian Fishman, echoed that sentiment in a tweet: “Don’t let humanity’s worst use your tools.” 

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