Washington, DC — Today, the International Republican Institute (IRI) released a new report “Can Big Tech Contribute to Breaking Putin’s Censorship?”, analyzing the critical role of Western technology companies in the context of Russia’s ongoing censorship and repression since its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
“Western tech companies’ hands-off approach deprives an increasingly isolated Russian society of its few remaining independent sources of information,” the report said.
Through interviews with representatives from 16 Russian independent media outlets and civil society organizations (CSO), the report shows the unintended support that Western tech companies provides to Russia’s authoritarian government in limiting access to independent information to Russian citizens.
Key findings from the report include:
- All interviewed organizations experienced negative impacts to their online presence after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with 14 reporting periodical sharp decreases in traffic and social media engagement that they are unable to explain.
- Six noted that independent Russian media websites were deprioritized or omitted in Google search results and Google Discover service, which, while inadvertent, let to the amplification of Kremlin propaganda by directing millions of Russians to anti-Ukrainian and anti-Western messaging every day.
- Eleven respondents faced loss of access to essential Western software, tools, and equipment.
- Eleven reported restricted access to certain online advertising services.
- Attempts to resolve these issues with tech providers were often unsuccessful, with responses ranging from unawareness to indifference.
- Despite challenges, Russian independent media and civil society showed resilience and adaptability in the face of dual pressures from state repression and Western tech policies.
The report underscores the dire situation in Russia, where independent media and civil society face unprecedented challenges. Almost 20,000 anti-war protesters have been detained, and over 250 journalists and media outlets have been labeled as foreign agents or undesirable organizations. Additionally, around 8,500 online resources were blocked by the state watchdog Roskomnadzor in just two months of 2023.
The report emphasizes the need for collaborative dialogue between Western tech companies, Russian media, civil society, and international governments. Recognizing the complex tradeoffs and technological challenges faced by tech firms, IRI’s research aims to facilitate this critical dialogue. While the platforms and services provided by these companies play a vital role in helping independent media and civic actors deliver accurate information to their audiences, this initiative is particularly urgent as Russia faces the prospect of deeper global internet isolation, and it seeks to address and mitigate the consequences of the nuanced issues.Top