We had just been talking about Instagram and YouTube facing site blocks in Russia all because a billionaire didn't like his dirty laundry exposed online. For brief background, a noted Russian dissident, Alexy Navalny, had published photos of billionaire Oleg Deripaska and Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Prikhodko relaxing on a yacht with a young woman variously described as a model and escort fawning over them. Importantly, the salacious nature of the photos and videos is only half of the reason Navalny is drawing attention to them. The other reason is his accusations of corruption in government, as a massively wealthy oligarch consorts in this fashion with a high-ranking member of the federal government. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Russian courts had handed Deripaska a legal victory and ordered sites hosting the images, including Instagram and YouTube, to take them down. Russia's notoriously corrupt site-blocking agency, Rozcomnadzor, issued an edict that the images be removed or the sites would face a potential full block in Russia.
In that post as well, we posited that American companies should not be assisting authoritarian regimes in political censorship of this sort. Well, it seems that Facebook's Instagram has decided to cave to the censors.
A spokeswoman for Facebook would not discuss the specifics of the case but confirmed that it had decided to comply with Roskomnadzor's demands.
"When governments believe that something on the internet violates their laws, they may contact companies and ask us to restrict access to that content," she said. "We review such requests carefully in light of local laws and where appropriate, we make it unavailable in the relevant country or territory. We are transparent about any content restrictions we make for government requests with local law in our Transparency Report."
Let's be clear about what happened here. A political opponent of the current Russian regime posted embarrassing photos showing both a potentially salacious act with a young woman and, more importantly, a potentially inappropriate relationship between government and a wealthy businessman. Whatever level of transparency Facebook desires to have on this matter, the simple fact is that an American company has chosen to bow to what certainly seems like pure political censorship. Whatever the privacy concerns Deripaska may have raised in court, it should be clear to anyone that similar pictures of some every-day person in Russia would not have been treated with so heavy a hand. This all looks to have been done to avoid political embarrassment above anything else.
And, so, now all eyes turn to Google.
Its response contrasts with that of Google's YouTube service. It had been ordered to block several clips before the end of Wednesday. But it has taken no such action.
Will Google cave as well? If I were to bet on the matter, that seems an outcome at least as likely as any other, but the company certainly shouldn't give into such demands. And, frankly, if any company has the power to get into a staring contest with the Russian government, it's Google. Whether it has the backbone for it remains to be seen, but I would guess there would be far too much backlash over a full block of YouTube in Russia to be worth the government blocking the site in full.
And, again, it's just not a good look to have an American company support this kind of corruption and censorship. It's a shame Facebook couldn't find its stance on the matter, but perhaps Google can do better.