The European Union has told Google to wipe Russian state media organizations RT and Sputnik from search results in Europe as part of its sanctions on the two entities, a sharp escalation in government attempts to shut down Russian propaganda on tech platforms and sparking fresh concerns regarding regulation of free speech.
Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and Google’s YouTube all said last week they would block posts from Russian state media accounts in Europe, responding to public pressure and government requests. An official order from the E.U. banning the “broadcast” of RT and Sputnik came on March 2, but it was not clear immediately how it applied to Internet companies.
Now, a document uploaded by Google to a database of government requests shows E.U. officials explaining how the order applies not just to the social media accounts of RT and Sputnik, but also to search results and to posts from individuals who “reproduce” content from the two media organizations on any social media platform. The E.U. letter does carve out an exception for media organizations reporting on the sanctions.
The E.U.’s position is a “far-reaching and remarkable interpretation of the law,” said TJ McIntyre, an associate professor at University College Dublin who studies Internet law and civil liberties. The document wasn’t made public by the E.U., so it also raises questions about transparency, McIntyre said. “We have very little insight into how it’s actually being applied.”
The actual sanctions law does not spell out the order in the same way, so the interpretation being presented by the European officials could be challenged in court.
The debate over tech platforms, content moderation and government censorship has raged for years. The companies have slowly added new policies about what they do and don’t allow as propaganda, medical misinformation and violent hate speech have gripped their platforms over the years. They also respond to government requests and laws to block content, such as legislation in Germany that bans Nazi imagery.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is forcing a new set of questions for the tech companies as they respond to intense public pressure to cut Russia off from the rest of the world, while also balancing their desire to keep their apps open and usable for Russian citizens.
Searches for “Russia Today” on Google in Europe did not return a link to the organization’s page, while the same search done in the United States did. Google’s announcement on March 1 that it was taking action on the two Russian media organizations only mentioned it was taking down their YouTube channels in Europe and blocking their ability to make money from YouTube ads globally.
Spokespeople for Google and the E.U. did not return requests for comment. Twitter spokesperson Trenton Kennedy referred to the company’s previous statement that the E.U. sanctions require it to take down certain content. Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone declined to comment.
Companies like Google respond to many government requests to take down content, but usually those requests are limited to a specific post or based on something that is illegal under a long-standing law, said Daphne Keller, who was associate general counsel for Google until 2015 and now directs the Program on Platform Regulation at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center. The E.U. order, however, applies to anything RT and Sputnik might post, and also to anyone who reposts content from them, Keller said.
“If an ordinary user like you or me, if we share a screenshot of RT, they’re supposed to take it down,” Keller said. That massively increases the number of times platforms will be stepping in to take down posts, creating the potential for “infinite moments of moderation,” Keller said.