Google caves in to Russian demands, censors videos promoting a protest rally

Alexey Navalny, whose Anti-Corruption Foundation's videos were taken off YouTube by Google following a complaint by the Russian government, is currently serving a 30-day jail term for organizing a protest rally // Mitya Aleshkovsky, CC3.0

One day before a major rally against an unpopular pension reform was planned in Russia, Google informed the rally organizers, the Anti-Corruption Foundation, that it was taking down their YouTube videos promoting the rally, citing violation of Russia’s laws.

Russia’s administrative code imposes a “day of silence” on the day before an election, and all political campaigning is prohibited. The rally coincides with mayoral elections in Moscow on Sunday, September 9, as well as polling in other regions. Ads for several videos promoting the rallies in the 80 Russian cities where they were scheduled to take place were rejected, and the videos themselves were taken down by YouTube.

Earlier this week, Russia’s Central Elections Commission (CEC) and the Attorney General’s office sent a formal complaint to Google accusing the tech giant of election meddling. According to CEC member Alexander Klyukin, who spoke before the temporary commission to protect state sovereignty and prevent foreign interference into Russia's internal affairs, the Russian authorities took issue with Google’s promotion of Anti-Corruption Foundation founder Alexey Navalny’s political agenda. The temporary commission was established at Russia’s Council of the Federation (the upper chamber of parliament) last year. Navalny is a prominent opposition activist and is currently serving a 30-day sentence for attempting to organize an allegedly unsanctioned rally in January 2018.

Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s ally and former campaign manager when the activist ran for mayor of Moscow in 2013, said in a Facebook post that the Anti-Corruption Foundation had filed a formal complaint to Google and warned against the company's unquestioning compliance with every censorship demand from repressive governments:

Why is that so important.

This is not the first time when Russian authorities abuse their power to issue unlawful requests to the western IT-corporations. This is the first time, though, when Google decides to comply with such a request.

This sad precedent has to be given high priority and to be reverted. We realise how legal compliance works in large corporations: the lawyers would always advise just to follow local rules to avoid problems with the local authorities. This is a good practice in the countries where the rule of law is well established.

The corporations — including Google — should face the reality. In authoritarian regimes these are the governments who most frequently abuse the law. Not every request signed by a government authority should be automatically considered as a lawful one. Good portion of criticism is necessary to protect the users and their rights.

This latest scandal is unfolding as Google finds itself in the middle of an existential crisis of sorts, with employees revolting against what they see as as their company's embrace of censorship.

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