Google is caught in a censorship battle between Putin and his biggest domestic foe

Alexei NikolskyTASS via Getty ImagesRussia’s president Vladimir Putin (C), and senior Russian military officers during a naval parade marking the Day of the Russian Navy.
  • Google is at the center of a high-profile battle in Russian politics, fought between the Kremlin and jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
  • Navalny, who was banned from challenging Vladimir Putin in this year’s presidential election, had a number of YouTube ad campaigns removed from the site over the weekend.
  • The Russian government had demanded Google take them down, claiming they violate a Russian ban on campaigning in the 24 hours before an election.
  • Navalny’s team say that Russia was wrong to demand the take-down, as the elections were for local mayor positions and not the same as the issues the videos addressed.
  • Whatever it did, Google would have been accused of misconduct by the other side. Navalny’s team say this is the first time Google has sided with the Kremlin over them.

Google is caught in the middle of a bitter dispute between Vladimir Putin’s government and his best-known domestic critic in Russia, triggered by the tech giant pulling an ad campaign from YouTube.

Google removed a series of ads promoted by Navalny’s campaign (Navalny himself is in prison) which encouraged people to take to the streets on Sunday to protest a controversial increase in Russia’ retirement age.

The Russian government had leaned heavily on Google to take down the ads, which it claims are in violation of laws which ban campaigning in the 24 hours before an election and on the day of the vote, citing a series of mayoral elections on Sunday.

Navalny’s team claim that the Kremlin is using the law as cover to silence Navalny, who was not campaigning about mayoral races, but a much larger issue which cuts straight to Vladimir Putin and Russia’s federal government.

Leonid Volkov, an official on Navalny’s campaign, posted a long Facebook status attacking Google’s decision. He said:

Google explained they brought down the ads for “legal reasons”, with no further explanation provided. The protests scheduled for September 9 do not have anything to do with the upcoming regional elections.

Google has brought down the ads in different regions, regardless of whether the elections are scheduled in these regions. What Google did presents a clear case of political censorship.

In a statement to the Guardian newspaper published on Sunday, Google said that it considered the Russian government’s request to pull the ads a “justified appeal.”

“We require advertisers to act in accordance with the local law and our advertising policies,” the statement continued.

A YouTube spokesperson told Business Insider on Monday: “We consider all valid requests from governmental bodies and require advertisers to comply with local law and our general advertising policies.”

Larry PageKimberly White/Getty ImagesAlphabet CEO Larry Page.

The ruling follows a demand from Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) that the ads not be allowed to run.

Navalny’s website hosts what it says is a copy of the demand, addressed to Larry Page, who is the CEO of Google and YouTube’s ultimate parent company, Alphabet.

The message cites a 2002 election law which it claims demands the removal of the ad campaign. The letter says keeping the videos up would be “fraught with the risk of massive violations” of election law – an interpretation Navalny’s team dispute.

The CEC also claims that publishing the videos could also break a law banning “interference of foreign organisations in election campaigns.”

Volkov, the Navalny spokesman, wrote on Facebook that Google and other tech giants had been subject to similar demands from the Kremlin before, but that this was the first time they have complied.

He said Navalny’s team had filed an official complaint to Google.

Russian lawyer Alexei Navalny has been a regime opponent since 2009, when Putin was Prime Minister under Dimitri Medvedev. He has grown in influence and in December 2017 was banned from running for President in the March 2018 elections on what his team says are exaggerated and politicised charges of fraud.

Navalny wasn’t protesting on Sunday as he is in jail serving a 30-day sentence for violating public order laws.

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