Google took down a series of YouTube ads for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny before a vote for regional governors on Sunday and amid protests over President Vladimir Putin’s plans to raise the retirement age for state pensions, the Guardian reported.
Navalny’s team is obviously condemning YouTube for the decision, with aide Leonid Volkov calling it a “clear case of political censorship.” For its part, Google is saying the company’s hands were tied by local law requiring all campaigning to cease for 24 hours before an election. The Guardian wrote:
Russian officials sent a letter to Google last month asking it to block Navalny’s videos because it said they were illegal under the country’s election laws, which bar political campaigning 24 hours before elections.
Google confirmed it had pulled the videos. “We consider all justified appeals from state bodies. We also require advertisers to act in accordance with the local law and our advertising policies,” the company told the Guardian.
Volkov accused Russian officials of pulling one over on Google, saying “The rallies do not have anything to do with the elections,” and that the order was illegal. He characterized it as the first time Google has cooperated with Russian authorities’ demands for censorship of the opposition movement to Putin.
Navalny is no stranger to backlash from Russian leadership after he ran against Putin appointee Sergei Sobyanin for the mayorship of Moscow in 2013. He has a long arrest record, including on charges of fraud in 2014 that European human rights court ruled were “arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable.” Navalny campaigned for the presidency in elections that took place in March 2018, though Russian courts barred him from running officially, citing the fraud conviction.
The Navalny-organized protests are against a Putin-led decision to raise state pension eligibility ages by five years, which the Guardian reported Levada Centre polling faces roughly 80 percent opposition from the public. Yet per the Washington Post, they consisted mostly of core Navalny supporters thanks in part to fear of arrests:
The protests Sunday were unusual in their scope, with Navalny supporters organizing some 115 events across the country. But they appeared smaller than the demonstrations he orchestrated last June, when Russian news media estimated that at least 50,000 people protested nationwide.
The protests are unlikely to have an immediate political impact in Russia, where voters will go to the polls in the March 18 presidential election and deliver what is expected to be a resounding endorsement of a fourth term for Putin. But they showed the resilience of a vocal minority of Navalny supporters, even in Russia’s far-flung regions, who are willing to risk arrest to back his grass-roots campaign to unseat Putin.
Google shuttered its engineering offices in Russia in 2014 amid the passage of laws to require internet companies to store data locally and a rise in requests by Russian regulators to pull content. On prior occasions, it has seemingly refused to comply with takedown orders from Russian authorities.
Earlier this month the Russian election commission as well as prosecutors and internet regulators warned Google of their stance that “Navalny uses Google’s services to disseminate illegal information,” warning “that the company may be prosecuted if it does not act to stop this,” according to Agence France-Presse. Russian authorities characterized Google as a U.S. influence tool that would meddle in their elections.