Tech giants should resist Russia’s iron grip of censorship

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Tech giants should resist Russia’s iron grip of censorship

By Editorial Board February 20, 2018

WHAT IS a good, reliable test of an open society? Can a citizen post something online calling the president a crook or a fool? Not in Russia, where speech is not free and the Kremlin’s whims rule.

Consider the online protest of Alexei Navalny, a Russian anti-corruption campaigner and leading voice of opposition to President Vladimir Putin. Blocked by the Kremlin and courts from running for president on arbitrary grounds, he has called for a boycott of the March election in Russia, at which Mr. Putin is expected to claim an easy victory and fourth term. Mr. Navalny has turned to YouTube to get his anti-corruption message out. The Russian censors are not happy.

Mr. Navalny’s latest YouTube video — he has made several in recent years — is a 25-minute portrayal of a potentially corrupt association between one of Mr. Putin’s top aides and one of Russia’s richest oligarchs, featuring a secret rendezvous on a luxury yacht with a call girl, whose Instagram account and published memoir provided some of the open-source information. The title of the piece is “Yachts, oligarchs, girls: the huntress for men exposes the bribe taker.” Mr. Navalny suggests strongly that Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska was currying favor from a Kremlin official, Sergei Prikhodko, aboard his yacht and also floats some speculative theories about Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

Mr. Navalny’s video went viral within days. It has been viewed more than 5 million times. But Mr. Putin’s power structure — and it is a very personalized kind of power — took offense. Mr. Deripaska went to court and won an order to take down some of the videos, claiming they violated his privacy. The Russian media oversight agency, Roskomnadzor, demanded YouTube and Instagram take down the offending material or else it would be blocked in Russia and also warned Russian media to remove it. The Russian outlets complied. So did Instagram, owned by Facebook, where some of the material had been posted. YouTube, owned by Google, passed a warning on to Mr. Navalny’s staff members that if they don’t remove the content, Google might be forced to do it, but Mr. Navalny’s people were unbowed. So far, YouTube has not removed the video.

The pressure on the Western tech giants goes to the heart of a growing problem for them. When they promise to obey local laws, they risk becoming instruments of censorship in authoritarian states. These can be tough calls, but it would be nice to see more tech companies tell the autocrats: Drop dead. Instagram’s cave-in looks like a betrayal of important values.

Mr. Navalny’s video has underscored once again the degree to which Russia has become a closed society under Mr. Putin. The 1993 Russian Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and assembly. But nowadays these words exist only on paper. The only rules that matter are those dictated by Mr. Putin and his cronies, who do not want the voters to see their secret yacht trips.


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