Russia fines Google $100 million, and Meta $27 million, over ‘failure to remove banned content’

MOSCOW — A Russian court fined Google nearly $100 million Friday for “systematic failure to remove banned content” — the largest such penalty yet in the country as Moscow attempts to rein in Western tech giants.

The fine was calculated based on Google’s annual revenue, the court said. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s Internet regulator, told the court that Google’s 2020 turnover in the country exceeded 85 billion rubles, or about $1. 15 billion.

Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, was fined approximately $27 million, also for declining to remove banned content, several hours after the Google decision. Like the fine levied by Google, Meta’s was linked to Russian yearly revenues.

The fines represent an escalation in Russia’s push to pressure foreign tech firms to comply with its increasingly strict rules on what it deems illegal content — particularly apps, websites, posts and videos related to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s network, which has been labeled as extremist in the country.

Navalny’s popular videos on corruption in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle can still be accessed on YouTube, which is owned by Google, in Russia. Navalny’s “Putin Palace” investigation, about a lavish Black Sea residence Navalny claimed was built for Putin by use of a slush fund, has been viewed more than 120 million times.

Google’s press service said it would study the court documents then decide on next steps, such as if it will appeal the decision. The company has 10 days to appeal.

Google, Meta and other tech companies are regularly fined in Russia. These penalties rarely exceed $1 million. Before Friday’s court decision, Google had been fined a total of about $500,000 for failing to remove some 2,600 items of content that Russia considers illegal, according to Roskomnadzor.

Alexander Plushev, a journalist for the popular Echo of Moscow radio, said on his Telegram channel that the Google ruling “may indicate that the political decision to expel Western services from Russia has been made.”

During his end-of-year news conference Thursday, Putin said Russia “will continue insisting that our joint work with global network platforms will be in line with the Russian laws.”

He added that Moscow would rather not resort to a traffic slowdown or all-out block of a certain Internet company or social network, but “if we are forced into it, we will be forced to up our demands in regard to everyone who works with such issues and ignores interests of the Russian society.”

Digital rights activists have blasted a decision by Russian authorities to mandate foreign tech firms open local offices starting Jan. 1, fearing that those subsidiaries can be used to pressure companies into Internet censorship.

Such a situation occurred in September, when Navalny’s Smart Voting app, which directed Russians how to vote in opposition of Putin during parliamentary elections, disappeared from Apple and Google’s online stores. According to a person familiar with the matter, told The Washington Post that Russian authorities threatened Google employees in Russia at the time .

Moscow also ramped up the pressure on Twitter earlier this year, slowing down the speed of the network in March in retaliation for what Russia said were content violations.

In 2018, Russia blocked the Telegram messaging app, one of the country’s most popular, for not providing Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, the encryption keys for all Russian users’ correspondence. The app was still widely used and continued to function in Russia. Last year, the ban was lifted.

Anton Gorelkin, the deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma Information Policy Committee, said on his Telegram channel that “highly unpleasant measures will follow if the turnover-based fine does not bring Google to its senses. We will continue to defend the right of Russian citizens to a safe online environment.”

This report has been updated.

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