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How Silicon Valley’s Russia crackdown proves its power – and its threat | April Glaser, Joan Donovan and Jenna Ruddock

Less than a day after Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine, the head of security at Meta (formerly Facebook) announced the company would no longer accept ad money from Russian state media outlets like Russia Today and Sputnik. Twitter said it would pause all ads from both Russia and Ukraine. and the next day, 26 February, YouTube quietly shared that it had begun blocking a handful of Kremlin-run media outlets from monetizing and running ads on their channels too.

It was the start of a cascade of corporate denials of service: one after the other, prominent social media and tech companies intensified restrictions on Russian state media’s presence on their platforms. Even major internet infrastructure firms, such as the domain registrar Namecheap and the internet services provider Cogent, told their Russian customers to take their business elsewhere.

Over the next week, the corporate actions against Russia intensified. Kremlin-backed media outlets were blocked from buying ads on Google search and Google removed the Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik news apps from its Google Play store in Europe. Apple did the same in its App Store. Spotify removed all content produced by Russian state media. DirecTV and Roku stopped running RT America. Netflix, Snapchat, Microsoft and many others followed suit, one way or another, in removing the Kremlin-backed media channels from their platforms.

At Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, we started tracking the response of major tech firms to the war in Ukraine since the invasion two weeks ago. We found that companies attributed their decisions to remove Kremlin-backed media or cut their services in Russia in an effort to combat the spread of harmful disinformation by Russian actors, to stand in support of Ukraine and against the Russian invasion, and to comply with a wave of new sanctions and government requests.

On 27 February, for example, the European Union announced an unprecedented sanction prohibiting the distribution of Russia Today and Sputnik within the EU. This week the EU even instructed search engines to ensure that they don’t return any search results within the EU that even describes or link to RT or Sputnik content. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s political leaders urged US-based tech companies to stop doing business in Russia and to cut all ties to the Russian government.

Tech companies around the world appeared to listen. The very public and very swift removal of Russian channels on social media represented a sea change from years of prior content moderation decisions, when government requests for removals were often done with less fanfare and were frequently met with ire from human rights groups.

Together, the moves to take down Russian state content, which ultimately led to RT shutting down its American operations entirely, highlight that tech companies play a crucial role in deciding what information gets disseminated in times of crisis and which narratives can gain traction. But without real regulations and without companies crafting and consistently following policies of their own, we can only expect more confusion.

There are no rules

When Meta’s head of global affairs, Nick Clegg, announced his company would intensify restrictions on Russian state media, he said the decisions had been made at the behest of the Ukrainian government. “We have been in contact with the government of Ukraine, and at their request we have also restricted access to several accounts in Ukraine, including those belonging to some Russian state media organizations,” Clegg wrote.

The reasoning echoed those of other tech companies making similar decisions, but it was an incredible turnabout.

Companies like Facebook, YouTube, DirectTV and others had also allowed the Russian state actors to use their platforms to spread propaganda for many years, even if they violated policies against disinformation.

Nick Clegg said Meta’s decisions had been made at the Ukrainian government’s request. Photograph: Dpa Picture Alliance/Alamy

And tech corporations had traditionally faced pressure over government requests. In 2020, Facebook was criticized by human rights groups for censoring posts critical of the Vietnamese government in response to local laws, and last year Facebook and Twitter took down posts at the request of the Indian government with content critical of the country’s coronavirus efforts. When it comes to other government requests, like those from law enforcement for user data, Google, Twitter and Facebook all produce annual reports detailing how many requests they’ve received in each country where the companies operate and how often they’ve complied.

The new move to openly comply with government requests to remove content was motivated by a complex set of factors. For social media companies, in particular, disinformation is a design feature of the technology itself. Platforms are designed to encourage debate on controversial issues, even though that often means flat-out false information takes center stage as people who disagree or agree with it flock to engage. Secondly, tech companies perform a careful dance with politicians from many countries so they can continue to do business internationally. Taking steps to remove disinformation thoroughly can therefore create unfavorable political conditions that will ultimately affect profits.

US-based technology companies routinely wait until political events become so terrifying that they have no choice but to do something to stop the spread of the disinformation, misinformation and hate that always presages violence.

That pattern was evident in the US before the violent and deadly raid on the US Capitol – by January, Facebook had actually dismantled the tools it had built to safeguard the 2020 election and the company failed to stop the spread of the viral “Stop the Steal ” online movement before the siege. The US surgeon general said last year that misinformation about Covid-19 on platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram was a “public health crisis” that had cost lives. Facebook admitted it had been “too slow” to stop the hate speech on its platform that was used to “incite violence” and ethnic cleansing against Muslim minorities in Myanmar.

In addition, there’s no US government rule that compels tech companies to moderate content one way or another. Absent such policies, one of the few mechanisms that has forced social media companies to make their platforms less dangerous is the critical press and the public pressure that follows a crisis. That check on social media companies’ behavior, however, is increasingly challenged, as disinformers are getting bolder and have become power users across the entire information ecosystem.

Depending on public pressure to compel companies to clean up their platforms also hasn’t yet yielded significant gains in policy. Americans are widely concerned about the spread of misinformation online, according to a new poll from Gallup and the Knight Foundation. But right now, US tech companies are struggling to pour water on wildfires after they’ve become too big to contain. A divided Congress is unlikely to agree on any regulations, large or small, over the tech sector anytime soon. Meanwhile, companies are making decisions about what information is and isn’t available after the ground war has already been waged and long after the content that helped fuel it has reached millions.

The power to decide who gets access to what information cannot lie solely in the hands of extremely influential companies. If governments, perhaps too enchanted by technology or too convinced by their powerful lobbying teams, will not regulate these companies, it’s time to write our own rules and insist on transparency and accountability throughout the entire tech stack, from internet service providers to platforms, cloud companies, and the open web. Reliable access to communications technology is a human right, not just a consumer request.

Our shared communication infrastructure is an important public issue that requires more attention from all sectors of society. The war in Ukraine and the ensuing corporate denial of service reminds us that this technology is not neutral, but rather it is crucial to peace between nations.

The authors are researchers at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School

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