Russia Takes Aim at YouTube

A flagrant violation of COVID misinformation policies could spark a ban

In the lead-up to the September parliamentary vote, Russian authorities successfully pressured Google and Apple to delete an app created by the opposition. YouTube (owned by Google) deleted a video on the opposition's Smart Voting initiative, citing an order by the Russian government. Despite the deletion, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki told Bloomberg Television on September 27 that free speech was one of the company's "core values." 

The battle continued this past week when YouTube suspended the RT Deutsch channel (the German-language version of the Russian state media channel) for one week for violating coronavirus misinformation policies. RT has been spreading vaccine disinformation in different languages, targeting Europe and the United States, in an apparent attempt to amplify divisions in the West. Then, RT Deutsch tried to evade the ban by creating a second channel called "Der Fehlende Part" ("the missing part"). YouTube deleted both channels. Google said it was against YouTube's terms of service to "use another channel in an attempt to circumvent the suspension of one channel by activity on another."

Roskomnadzor, Russia's telecommunications regulator, sent a letter to Google demanding the channels be reinstated. In the letter to Google reported by the Russian news outlet RBC, the agency threatened to block or throttle YouTube: "In the event that the owner of the resource does not comply with the Roskomnadzor warning, the legislation provides for measures of full or partial restriction of access." (Google did not respond to a request for comment on the letter.) 

Russia may have other reasons for threatening YouTube. Blocking YouTube would deprive the opposition, led by jailed dissident Alexei Navalny, of its most viable way to get its message out inside the country. For years, YouTube has been the most popular platform in Russia, more than Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Navalny's channel has 6.48 million subscribers, and more subscribers inside Russia than almost all state-controlled television channels. 

In the past, Russia has adopted measures that are harmful to its own citizens in response to foreign actions. In 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, which intended to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. In response, the Russian government banned the adoptions of Russian children by Americans. (Readers may recall that the Russian adoption ban was the cover used by Donald Trump Jr. to explain a meeting with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in June 2016.)

The Russian government's demand to reinstate channels that violated YouTube's coronavirus misinformation policies set up a confrontation with the platform that has recently strengthened its vaccine misinformation policies. In a September 29 statement, YouTube expanded them beyond coronavirus to include general false statements such as that vaccines cause autism or infertility. With medical misinformation, the link to harm is more clear-cut -- someone may fall seriously ill or die because of a false medical belief, whereas the harms from political misinformation are generally more multidetermined. 

Will YouTube buckle under pressure again the way it did for the Navalny Smart Voting video? The platform will, once again, have a decision to make on whether to stand firm on its policies or comply with an autocratic government.

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