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Russia vs. Big Tech: largest fines to date slapped, more to follow suit

Google and Meta were handed their first ever turnover fines, while general failure to comply with new law signals potential new woes as of January 1st

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Russia, December 23, 2021. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina
Russian President Vladimir Putin holds annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Russia, December 23, 2021. REUTERS/Evgenia Novozhenina

A justice of the peace court in Moscow fined Google (Alphabet) with a $98.4M fine (7.2B rubles), Meta with a $27M fine (2B rubles), and Twitter with a smaller, $41 thousand fine (3M rubels) for failure to comply with local laws and remove prohibited content – all in just over a day’s work,

The fines were slapped last Thursday and Friday by Russia’s state media regulator Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, IT and Mass Media), which said that Meta’s Facebook and Instagram have regularly failed to remove 2,000 pieces that violated Russian laws, while google failed to do the same for 2,600 pieces of banned content, according to Reuters.

“The content subject to removal ranges from pornographic material and posts promoting drugs and suicide to messages calling for Russians to protest in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, whose groups were outlawed as ׳extremist,׳” explains The Moscow Times.

This is the first time Moscow imposes turnover fines against big tech companies. Russian news agency TASS reports that fines for the abovementioned offenses can range from 1/20 to 1/10 of the company’s annual revenue. While Google reported a $1.2B turnover (85B rubels), the court is said to have fixed the fine amount independently.

New law on top of string of fines

These heavy fines represent the latest in round in the lengthy battle Moscow has been waging against (American) big-tech companies, which in January Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to as “monopolies competing with the state”, warning against their attempts to rule society by substituting “legitimate democratic institutions”. The crackdown reached new levels over the past year.

Just last week, it was reported that Meta has paid an almost $230 thousand (17M rubles) fine for failing to delete content, which had been imposed months earlier. This year alone, google paid more than $434 thousand (32M rubles) over content violations (not including the latest), while Twitter’s share reached $792 thousand (58M rubels), and Meta (or, Facebook) had to hand over $1.2M (90 M rubel). Telegram was also fined $139 thousand (10M rubels).

But that’s not all. There are also new rules and regulations. Last month, Roskomnadzor published a list of 13 foreign tech companies operating in Russia to set up official representation in the country by the end of 2021 – or face potential restrictions and even bans.

This list complies with a new law which came into effect in July, under which foreign social media companies with over 500 thousand daily users are obligated to open offices or establish a legal entity in Russia. The companies mentioned are Google, Meta (Facebook), Twitter, TikTok, Telegram, Apple, Zoom, Viber, Spotify, Likee, Discord, Pinterest and Twitch,

Another form of crackdown includes tampering with the technology. In March, Roskomnadzor announced it was slowing down Twitter’s speed, citing the platform’s failure to remove over 3000 banned content items, most of them encouraging suicide among minors.

“As you know, a lot of countries slow down traffic; there are also other ways, including essentially blocking them completely,” said Putin during his annual press conference, held Thursday. “We are very reluctant to take such extreme measures, but if we are forced to, we will have to make greater demands on those who work in this area and neglect the interests of the Russian society.”

TASS cites a recent parliamentary report, on the “protection of state sovereignty and prevention of meddling into Russia’s domestic affairs,” which concludes that “not many foreign IT companies started taking specific steps complying with the law, and starting January 1 they would bear the responsibility for the possible consequences of the failure to observe Russia legislation.”

Human rights watch: Russia internet turning into “zone of repression”

In conjunction with Friday’s fines, Human Rights Watch issued a new report titled “Russia: Year of Doubling Down on Internet Censorship”, which provides an extensive overview of the many actions (only some of them are mentioned in this article) taken by Russian authorities in their attempts “to repress internet freedoms”.

“The Russian government is using its growing technological capacity to engage in nontransparent, unlawful, and extrajudicial restriction of digital rights in Russia,” said Anastasiia Kruope, assistant Europe and Central Asia researcher at the organization. “This past year’s dramatic crackdown on internet freedoms is the culmination of many years’ efforts by the authorities to restrict the rights and freedoms of Russians online.”

According to Kruope, “Russian authorities claim that they’re working to safeguard the interests of Russian internet users. Instead, they are rapidly turning the internet in Russia into a zone of repression.”

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