The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia fines Google $100 million, and Meta $27 million, over ‘failure to remove banned content’

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow on Dec. 23. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

MOSCOW — A Russian court fined Google nearly $100 million Friday for “systematic failure to remove banned content” — the largest such penalty yet in the country as Moscow attempts to rein in Western tech giants.

The fine was calculated based on Google’s annual revenue, the court said. Roskomnadzor, Russia’s Internet regulator, told the court that Google’s 2020 turnover in the country exceeded 85 billion rubles, or about $1.15 billion.

Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, was fined approximately $27 million, also for declining to remove banned content, several hours after the Google decision. Meta’s fine, like the one levied on Google, was tied to yearly revenue in Russia.

The fines represent an escalation in Russia’s push to pressure foreign tech firms to comply with its increasingly strict rules on what it deems illegal content — particularly apps, websites, posts and videos related to jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s network, which has been labeled as extremist in the country.

Navalny’s popular videos on corruption in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle can still be accessed on YouTube, which is owned by Google, in Russia. Navalny’s “Putin Palace” investigation, about a lavish Black Sea residence Navalny claimed was built for Putin by use of a slush fund, has been viewed more than 120 million times.

In rare rebuttal of Kremlin critic Navalny, Putin denies he owns a Black Sea palace

Google’s press service said it would study the court documents then decide on next steps, such as if it will appeal the decision. The company has 10 days to appeal.

Google, Meta and other tech companies are regularly fined in Russia. But those penalties have rarely exceeded $1 million. Before Friday’s court decision, Google had been fined a total of about $500,000 for failing to remove some 2,600 items of content that Russia considers illegal, according to Roskomnadzor.

Alexander Plushev, a journalist for the popular Echo of Moscow radio, said on his Telegram channel that the Google ruling “may indicate that the political decision to expel Western services from Russia has been made.”

During his end-of-year news conference Thursday, Putin said Russia “will continue insisting that our joint work with global network platforms will be in line with the Russian laws.”

He added that Moscow would rather not resort to a traffic slowdown or all-out block of a certain Internet company or social network, but “if we are forced into it, we will be forced to up our demands in regard to everyone who works with such issues and ignores interests of the Russian society.”

Digital rights activists have blasted a decision by Russian authorities to mandate foreign tech firms open local offices starting Jan. 1, fearing that those subsidiaries can be used to pressure companies into Internet censorship.

Such a situation occurred in September, when Navalny’s Smart Voting app, which directed Russians how to vote in opposition of Putin during parliamentary elections, disappeared from Apple and Google’s online stores. A person with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering the Russian government, told The Washington Post at the time that Google received direct threats against staff located in the country from Russian authorities.

Moscow also ramped up the pressure on Twitter earlier this year, slowing down the speed of the network in March in retaliation for what Russia said were content violations.

Why Russia is tightening its grip on social media

In 2018, Russia blocked the Telegram messaging app, one of the country’s most popular, for not providing Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, the encryption keys for all Russian users’ correspondence. But the app continued to work in the country and was widely used. The ban was lifted last year.

Anton Gorelkin, the deputy chairman of the Russian State Duma Information Policy Committee, said on his Telegram channel that “highly unpleasant measures will follow if the turnover-based fine does not bring Google to its senses. We will continue to defend the right of Russian citizens to a safe online environment.”

This report has been updated.