Google stops Russian state media ads in latest Big Tech response to invasion

Google Maps adjusts features for safety of Ukrainians; moves come after YouTube ends monetization, restricts some channels and Twitter limits ads

Screen capture of Google Maps showing the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, February 28, 2022. (Google Maps)
Screen capture of Google Maps showing the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, February 28, 2022. (Google Maps)

Google has said it won’t allow Russian state media outlets to run ads and that it has blocked certain features of its map service in Ukraine to protect local citizens, in the latest move by a leading tech company against Russia’s invasion of its neighbor.

Google Maps blocked features in Ukraine that provide real-time information on users’ movements.

Google said it stopped the live traffic overlay and the Live Busyness, which shows how popular a location is at any given time. The company said it took the measures after consulting with local officials and to help keep Ukrainians safe.

Traffic updates are still available when using Google Maps’ navigation mode, Google said.

Since the invasion began last week, there has been criticism of Big Tech platforms for allowing Russian state media to continue to monetize sites.

Social media networks have become one of the fronts in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, home to sometimes misleading information but also real-time monitoring of a quickly developing conflict that marks Europe’s biggest geopolitical crisis in decades.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have responded with a range of measures. There has not been any response yet from video sharing app TikTok.

Google’s subsidiary YouTube on Saturday said it was preventing several Russian channels, including RT (Russia Today), from earning revenue on the platform.

YouTube also said it would be significantly limiting recommendations to those channels.

Facebook on Friday restricted Russian state media’s ability to earn money on its platform.

“We are now prohibiting Russian state media from running ads or monetizing on our platform anywhere in the world,” Nathaniel Gleicher, the social media giant’s security policy head, said on Twitter.

He added that Facebook would “continue to apply labels to additional Russian state media.”

Likewise, Twitter has suspended all advertising in Ukraine and Russia, saying on Friday it took the measure “to ensure critical public safety information is elevated and ads don’t detract from it.”

Twitter’s safety team tweeted, “Our top priority is keeping people on Twitter safe.”

“We’re actively monitoring for risks associated with the conflict in Ukraine, including identifying and disrupting attempts to amplify false and misleading information,” it said.

Facebook Head of Cybersecurity Policy Nathaniel Gleicher testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 22, 2019. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Facebook’s parent company, Meta, said earlier Friday that Russia would hit its services with restrictions after it refused authorities’ order to stop using fact-checkers and content warning labels on its platforms.

“Yesterday, Russian authorities ordered us to stop the independent fact-checking and labelling of content posted on Facebook by four Russian state-owned media organizations,” Meta’s Nick Clegg said in a statement. “We refused.”

His statement came hours after Russia’s media regulator said it was limiting access to Facebook, accusing the US tech giant of censorship and violating the rights of Russian citizens.

On Wednesday, Facebook released a feature in Ukraine that allows people to lock their profiles for increased security, using a tool the company also deployed after Afghanistan fell to the Taliban last year.

Gleicher said Facebook had set up a Special Operations Center to monitor the situation in Ukraine “in response to the unfolding military conflict.”

There has also been a low-tech information disruption campaign inside Ukraine.

Ukravtodor, which oversees Ukraine’s road system, began removing road signs to confuse the Russian invaders, The Washington Post reported on Saturday.

“Let’s help them get straight to hell,” Ukravtodor wrote on Facebook. It further called on “all road organizations, territorial communities, local governments to immediately begin dismantling nearby road signs.”

Big Tech dilemma

US tech giants are under intense pressure to pick a side regarding Ukraine’s invasion, at once facing calls to stand against Moscow’s internationally condemned war but also Kremlin retribution for resistance.

Services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have a unique power because of their global reach and ubiquity, but they are profit-motivated companies so a stridently principled stand can be bad for business.

Since Moscow attacked Ukraine, the besieged nation has urged firms from Apple to Google and Netflix to cut off Russia.

Twitter, which faced fines and slower service last year over government orders to remove certain content, reported Saturday its network was “being restricted for some people in Russia.”

“Western companies have provided an online space for Russians to get information about the atrocities their government is committing in Ukraine,” tweeted Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

“The Kremlin is moving aggressively to hide the truth,” she added.

‘Spreading misinformation’

Ukraine’s defiant government, which has urged its people to battle Russian forces, has asked for help from all quarters, including Apple’s CEO Tim Cook.

“I appeal to you… to stop supplying Apple services and products to the Russian Federation, including blocking access to the Apple Store!” Ukraine’s Digital Minister Mykhailo Fedorov wrote in a letter he posted to Twitter Friday.

Cook, tweeting a day before, wrote that he was “deeply concerned with the situation in Ukraine” and that the company would be supporting local humanitarian efforts.

Big tech companies have struggled with how to deal with authoritarian governments, including Russia, where Google and Apple complied last year with government orders to remove an opposition app and faced outrage.

As the crisis in Ukraine has escalated, tech companies have been accused of not doing all they could to stifle dangerous misinformation regarding the invasion.

“Your platforms continue to be key vectors for malign actors –- including, notably, those affiliated with the Russian government –- to not only spread disinformation, but to profit from it,” US Senator Mark Warner wrote to Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent Alphabet, on Friday.

Warner, who also sent letters to Meta, Reddit, Telegram, TikTok and Twitter, went on to accuse YouTube of continuing “to monetize the content of prominent influence actors… publicly connected to Russian influence campaigns.”

Tech companies have long vaunted themselves as defenders of free speech and democratic values, yet they have also been criticized for reaping many billions in advertising revenue on platforms that can have a harmful impact on users.

The invasion comes at a time when the dominant social media platform, Facebook, has been hit by a historic drop in its value due to worries over a mix of factors like slowing growth and pressure on its key ad business.

But experts urged a principled stand, especially in a case freighted with the gravity of the Ukraine invasion.

“It’s appropriate for American companies to pick sides in geopolitical conflicts, and this should be an easy call,” Alex Stamos, a former chief security officer at Facebook, tweeted Friday.

Another ex-Facebook worker, Brian Fishman, echoed that sentiment in a tweet: “Don’t let humanity’s worst use your tools.”

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