Russia’s requests to block YouTube is ‘political censorship,’ says rights group

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Russia’s requests to block YouTube is ‘political censorship,’ says rights group

Videos on YouTube offering advice on evading conscription or on the safe use of VPNs (virtual private networks) to audiences in Russia have been disappearing.

Several videos have been blocked by YouTube since February, according to a group of media and digital rights groups. While some of the videos were later reinstated, they no longer appeared in search results.

Last month independent Russian news website OVD-Info said it received a notice from YouTube informing it that the Russian media regulator had found their content in violation of a law.

“If you do not remove the content, Google may be required to block it,” said YouTube’s parent company in an email seen by the Reuters news agency.

The email didn’t specify what part of the law on information technology was allegedly violated on OVD-Info’s YouTube channel.

OVD-Info is a protest monitoring network, and its channel has 100,000 subscribers. The group interviews Russian opposition figures and features news that regularly focuses on Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

Dmitry Anisimov of OVD-Info told VOA that the Ministry of Justice had earlier added the group — and its YouTube channels — to its list of foreign agents.

“We are in consultation with YouTube and Google, trying to explain that the request to block our channel is a manifestation of political censorship,” Anisimov said. “If YouTube satisfies this demand, the channel will be deleted permanently, which will be very sad.”

Anisimov said that OVD-Info and digital rights group Access Now believe the action is the first time Russia’s regulator has required a Russian site to block an entire channel rather than a specific video.

YouTube did not respond to VOA’s request for comment.

Neither Russia’s embassy in Washington nor its media regulator replied to VOA’s email requesting comment.

Requests by Russia’s media regulator to block access to content on YouTube have been protested by rights groups in a letter to YouTube and Google.

The letter refers to the European Court of Human Rights, which, it says, “has repeatedly established the vagueness of Russian legal norms in terms of restricting access to information and their obvious contradiction with the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Additionally, the letter said, the U.N. Human Rights Committee in December 2022 called on Russia to repeal content-blocking laws that restrict freedom of speech. The U.N. recommended that privately owned companies not participate in such blockings.

Alexey Sidorenko is head of the independent group Teplitsa, which uses technology to strengthen civil society in Russia.

He told VOA that YouTube has a large audience in Russia, but that the platform’s position is unstable.

“For many years now there have been discussions that YouTube could be blocked or slowed down,” Sidorenko said. “For several years now, Russian big tech has been creating an infrastructure that is designed to replace YouTube, but this is not so easy.”

A Russian court has twice fined Google for violations of its laws, with the fines amounting to a combined $370 million, Reuters reported. In 2022, the Russian branch of Google declared bankruptcy after $15 million was seized from the company’s account and its office searched.

The Russian branch later closed advertising and monetization opportunities for Russians.

This article originated in VOA’s Russia Service.

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