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Google should not help him

SOMETIMES IT SEEMS as if Vladimir Putin’s presidency has been made for television. His bare-chested exploits on horseback, microlight flights with cranes and the fighting in Ukraine and Syria were planned with the cameras in mind. Having helped turn a little-known KGB officer into a patriotic icon, television has sustained him in power. But recently, there are signs that the spell of Russia’s gogglebox is weakening. Meanwhile, ever more Russians look to the internet for their news.

Russia’s state-controlled broadcast channels must now compete with social-media stars, YouTubers and online activists (see article). Over the past decade trust in television has fallen from 80% to below 50%; 82% of 18- to 44-year-olds use YouTube and news is its fourth-most-watched category. Some vloggers have audiences that dwarf those of the nightly newscasts.

Mr Putin’s government is attempting to gain control over social media through legislation, intimidation and new surveillance infrastructure. However, this needs the co-operation of Western internet platforms such as Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube. Increasingly, the government is ordering them to take down politically objectionable material or demanding private data about their users. Internet companies should resist collaborating in state oppression—in the interests of their own profits, as well as of Russian democracy.

One reason Western platforms should stand their ground is to keep faith with their own professed beliefs. The days when people thought the internet would naturally spread democratic values are over. But Silicon Valley’s liberalising mantras are not entirely hollow: rising internet use is making Russia’s information space more competitive. Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader banned from television, has millions of viewers on YouTube. Abroad, Mr Putin is known as a master manipulator of social media, but at home he is fighting to contain its political impact.

Another reason for Western platforms to resist being co-opted is that they can. Unlike China, whose rulers quickly recognised the internet’s threat and built a “Great Firewall”, Russia allowed it to grow intertwined with the outside world. A new law on “digital sovereignty” would let the Kremlin censor or cut off the national internet, but actually doing so would be technically and politically hard. Russian internet companies have servers abroad. Young Russians catch the YouTube habit when they are tots, because parents rely on it to entertain them. A big march is planned in Moscow on March 10th in defence of the internet.

Foreign internet companies do not have an entirely free hand. Western internet giants have servers in Russia. However, the Russian government would rather cajole the likes of Google than cut them off. This gives Western companies clout. They should use it.

The internet companies’ long-term self-interest matches their principles. Complying with morally dubious government demands threatens their reputation. When news emerged that Yahoo, a web portal, had been telling the Chinese government about its users, its reputation suffered. So far, Facebook and Google have resisted Russian requests to reveal users’ identities. Announcing a pivot to a more privacy-friendly stance this week (see article), Facebook’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg, said his firm would not store sensitive data “in countries with weak records on human rights”. Google has been fined for not removing banned websites from search results. But in the first half of 2018 Google acceded to 78% of the Russian government’s requests to remove material. The firms could do more to stand their ground.

Russia’s first internet connections were set up in 1989 at the Kurchatov nuclear institute, by scientists who wanted closer contact with the West. They called their network “Demos”. Today’s internet companies should make sure the internet remains a tool for building democracy, not dismantling it.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "Don’t be evil"
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