Caught in Russia-Ukraine Crossfire: How Big Tech is Handling Its First Major War

Picking a side comes with costs. Many of these companies have several employees in Russia, who could be persecuted.

Tech News
4 min read

Warfare in the 21st century is no longer a matter of who has the most bombs. Ukraine, for instance, has faced multiple cyber attacks of Russian origin as well as online disinformation campaigns, since the beginning of the conflict.

When social media platforms become battlefields, Big Tech can no longer afford to spectate. It also can't ignore direct calls to action from Ukraine, the United States, and the European Union.

But picking a side comes with costs, especially since many of these companies have several employees in Russia, who could be persecuted.

Here's a breakdown of what nations have asked the big tech companies to do, what they have done, and how Russia has reacted.


'Your Tzar Leads You to Nowhere'

The accosted nation, understandably, has been the most vocal about Big Tech's responsibilities. Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's minister for digital transformation, wrote to Apple, Google, Netflix, YouTube and Meta, asking them to suspend services in Russia or block propaganda accounts.

"In 2022 modern technologies are one of the best response to tanks, rockets and missiles. I’ve addressed to the biggest tech giants to support the sanctions for Russian Federation. We asked them to help us stop this outrageous aggression on our people!" he wrote on Twitter.

Fedorov insisted that his goal isn't to block information sources, but to engage Russia's "proactive and smart" youth. "Your tsar leads you to nowhere. You should act now!" he said.

The European Commission plans to “ban in the EU the Kremlin’s media machine” while Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have shot a joint letter to Meta, Google, YouTube and Twitter asking them to take a decisive stand.

The United States has imposed comprehensive sanctions against Russia which include restrictions on the trade of microelectronics, telecommunications items, sensors, navigation equipment, avionics, marine equipment, and aircraft components - all things Russia can't easily make on its own.

Since most Big Tech companies are headquartered in the US, they're also subject to domestic pressure. Senator Mark Warner of Virginia sent letters on 25 February to social media platforms, criticising them for profiting off of Russian propaganda.

What Big Tech Has Done

Here's a rundown of what some of the big technology companies have done about Russia's cyber/information offensive:

Meta, Facebook's parent company, initially fact-checked four Russian state-owned media outlets and put labels on their content. It also blocked the ability of these outlets to run ads or earn money on the platform. On Sunday, it took down a network targeting Ukraine with disinformation. On Monday, it buckled under pressure and restricted access to RT and Sputnik across the EU.

Twitter has said it is adding labels and reducing the visibility for tweets containing content from Russian state-affiliated media websites like RT and Sputnik. It has also temporarily stopped its advertising and recommendation features in Russia and Ukraine.

Google has barred Russian state-owned channels from earning ad revenue on their website, apps and YouTube videos, Reuters reported. The live traffic feature in Google Maps has also been disabled for Ukraine, since it could be used to track civilian activity. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki met with EU officials to discuss the crisis.

Telegram, which is immensely popular in Ukraine and Russia, has become a hub for the spread of misinformation - like WhatsApp is for India. Moxie Marlinspike, founder of Signal, flagged concerns about app's lack of encryption while Pavel Durov, Telegram's Russian founder, requested users of the app to verify all information. The operation of some channels might be partially or fully restricted if the situation in Ukraine escalates, he said on Sunday.

Apple has halted all product sales in Russia. Apple Pay and other services such as Apple Maps have also been restricted. It told several publications that it was "deeply concerned" about the invasion and stands with those suffering due to the violence.

Microsoft said on Sunday that it is working with Ukraine to detect cyber attacks. The Microsoft Start platform will not display any Russian state-sponsored content. It is removing RT news apps from its app store and de-ranking these sites on Bing. It is also banning all advertisements from RT and Sputnik across its ad network.

Starlink, headed by Elon Musk, responded positively to Ukraine's request to provide internet services through its satellite constellation. "Starlink services are now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route," wrote Musk on Twitter.


Russia's Retaliation

Russia's media regulator Roskomnadzor had said on Friday, that it would partly restrict Facebook in response to its refusal to stop fact-checking and labeling Russian state media, Meta's Nick Clegg confirmed. The regulator accused Facebook of violating the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens and asked for an explanation.

On Saturday, Russia blocked Twitter in the country, according to data forensics from internet monitoring group NetBlocks. Twitter said it was aware that the platform is being restricted for some people in Russia and is working to keep it safe and accessible.

The mounting pressure from Russia and the West has put social media platforms in an uncomfortable position, since most have employees in Russia. They have had to weigh humanitarian calls to action against the safety of their employees and accusations of censorship.

Russia has reportedly resorted to threatening employees before.

In September 2021, Apple and Google removed an app supposed to coordinate protest voting in the elections, after Russian authorities threatened to prosecute local employees, according to a report by The New York Times.

A source told the publication that the authorities had named specific individuals who would face prosecution.

Experts are also reportedly concerned that if Big Tech cracks down too hard on Russian outlets and accounts, it could backfire.

“Government intervention gives Russia a talking point of the west being no more open to opposing views than they are, while giving the green light to go after the BBC (and other outlets),” Ben Dubow, founder of Omelas told Financial Times.

(With inputs from Reuters, The New York Times and Financial Times.)

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