Russian telecommunications regulator Roskomnadzor opened an official investigation into Google after the company failed to censor certain Search results for its users in the transcontinental country, the agency said Monday. The probe is predicted to run until next month when the regulator will make a final decision of whether to pursue the matter in the court of law. The actual contents of Google’s alleged “administrative violations” haven’t been disclosed, with Roskomnadzor’s announcement of the investigation only containing vague references to Russian censorship laws that require Internet companies to censor “illegal” information, which in turn is defined by other legislation. The Mountain View, California-based company has yet to publicly reflect on the situation.
Background: Russia’s existing laws require all Internet companies serving third-party information to participate in a specialized state registry meant to identify websites the local government determines are illegal. The platform is then used to inform participating companies of websites they ought to censor, either by blocking access to them or not listing them in their services. That’s the crux of the issue Google is now facing in the country, with Roskomnadzor Alphabet’s subsidiary failed to join the said registry. Free speech and human rights advocate argue Russia’s definition of “illegal” information is frivolous and made for the sole purpose of censoring thoughts and facts critical of Kremlin.
Some ten years back, Google was harshly opposed to widespread government censorship, having even gone as far as to exit the lucrative Chinese market in 2010 after refusing to help Beijing censor its isolated version of the Internet. However, as the company broke all performance records in the meantime, it’s now facing a realistic possibility of its growth stagnating in the immediate future, which prompted it to revise its stance on foreign government censorship and its willingness to work with (largely) non-democratic regimes with the goal of turning a profit. One recent example of that philosophy shift is Project Dragonfly, a controversial initiative that saw Google begin building a censored version of Search for China. Despite massive pressure from the general public and U.S. legislators, Google refused ruling out the possibility of returning to the Far Eastern country and continues funding the project to this date, even after some employees quit over ethical concerns raised by the secretive effort which was only exposed following media reports from this summer.
The change in Google’s stance on China makes the current issue in Russia more confusing as the firm clearly signaled it doesn’t find censorship demands a deal-breaker any longer. Still, Google has a rather substantial history of issues with Kremlin. Two years back, the company was fined for anti-competitive behavior in the mobile market, having been handed a $7.8 million fine due to its product practices that were found to have promoted its Android apps at a direct expense of rivaling solutions following a complaint from local Internet giant Yandex. The Google-Kremlin relations deteriorated further in 2017 after the world’s largest Internet search engine started removing results linking to some Russian outlets for Western audiences as part of its efforts to combat online misinformation. Previously, the Russian government forced Google to delist some Play Store Android apps such as LinkedIn.
The tense relations have a highly political pretext seeing how Russia remains the subject of a U.S. probe helmed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller who’s still investigating the extent of election meddling conducted by Russian nationals and companies during the stateside presidential race in 2016. As part of the same investigation, the veteran attorney and former FBI Director is also looking into any potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, with the President repeatedly publicly criticizing the endeavor as a “witch hunt.” Those circumstances make any clashes between Kremlin and American entities — private or not — of particular interest to the global public, which may be related to the fact that Google apparently failed to enroll in Russia’s state registry for censorship despite indicating an acceptance of such practices in other parts of the world.
The latest development comes on the heels of many other issues Google had with foreign regulators in recent times. This July, the European Commission issued the largest antitrust fine in its history to Alphabet’s subsidiary after determining it promoted its Android apps in an anti-competitive manner, ordering it to pay $5 billion for the transgression as part of a case that’s thematically similar to the one concluded in Russia two years back. The firm is presently also combating the concept of the so-called “right to be forgotten” in some parts of the world and is facing questions about the manner in which it approaches the subject of user privacy after media reports revealed aggressive Android tracking practices and Google itself admitted its Google+ social network potentially compromised hundreds of thousands of users due to a vulnerability that went undiscovered and then undisclosed for months. On its home turf, Google is currently also facing accusations of a liberal bias as even the President itself repeatedly accused the firm of censoring conservative voices and threatened investigations, though those warnings are yet to amount to anything substantial.
Impact: Even if Roskomnadzor finds Google guilty of administrative violations, the agency may not necessarily file a lawsuit against the American technology giant. Still, that appears to be a probable scenario seeing how the regulator’s authority is relatively limited; while it has the autonomy to penalize Google without involving the Russian judicial system in the process, it can only do so with a fine up to 700,000 rubles, or approximately $10,500, an insignificant sum for a multi-billion dollar business that’s one of the largest corporations in the world. Due to that state of affairs, Roskomnadzor might eventually pursue a more serious penalty in the court of law, dropping yet another regulatory issue on Google after the company has already gotten involved in some high-profile legal clashes with foreign governments in recent years. As to why Google failed to enroll in Russia’s censorship registry, the move may have been a calculated risk taken with the purpose of avoiding further public criticism that it’s still facing due to Project Dragonfly and its general ambitions to relaunch its flagship Search service in China as an aggressively censored product.