(MOSCOW) — Russia’s state censor has threatened to block YouTube in the country in retaliation for the Google-owned video platform deleting two German-language channels belonging to the Kremlin-funded broadcaster RT for allegedly publishing misinformation around COVID-19.
The Russian censor, Roskomnadzor, sent a letter to Google warning that if it did not swiftly restore the two RT YouTube channels, then it faced a complete or partial block, according to Russian state news agencies that published parts of the letter Wednesday.
YouTube this week deleted the two RT channels, RT DE and Der Fehlende Part, for posting what it said was misinformation on the coronavirus pandemic. YouTube in a statement said RT DE had initially received a week-long suspension, blocking it from uploading videos, because it had violated misinformation rules.
But the platform said RT DE then tried to circumvent the restriction by using the other channel, Der Fehlende Part, to upload videos, a violation of YouTube’s user terms, which resulted in both channels being permanently banned.
Russia’s government has responded with fury and a torrent of threats to retaliate. The Russian foreign ministry on Tuesday called the deletions an “act of unprecedented information aggression” and asked the state censor to take actions against YouTube and German media in Russia.
RT’s editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, claimed the bans amounted to a “true media war” by Germany on Russia and said she was “looking forward” to Russia banning the main German public television broadcasters, ARD, ZDF and Deutsche Welle.
Germany’s government on Wednesday said it had no involvement with YouTube’s decision to delete the RT channels and and criticized Russia’s threats to retaliate against German media.
“I want to say in crystal-clear terms that this is a decision by YouTube, and the German government, or representatives of the German government, have nothing to do with this decision,” Steffan Seibert, the German government’s spokesman told reporters, according to Euronews.
Seibert said anyone calling for retaliation against German media “doesn’t show a good relationship with press freedom, from our point of view.”
Russian authorities have sought to pressure German state news media in Russia over the past two years amid a broader crackdown on free media. Russian officials have previously publicly threatened to withdraw the accreditation of Deutsche Welle, the foreign-focused public news agency, that has a Russian-language service.
The Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday said that in blocking the RT channels, “there are signs” YouTube had “grossly” violated Russian laws.
He told reporters that if Russian law enforcement agencies concluded the same then it couldn’t be excluded that measures might be taken to “oblige this platform to fulfil our laws.”
The threats to block YouTube come amid an escalating campaign by Russian authorities to pressure American tech companies, as the Kremlin seeks to take tighter control over Russia’s internet.
Just over a week ago, Google and Apple bowed to Kremlin demands to remove some content relating to a tactical voting campaign promoted by the jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny during Russia’s parliamentary elections.
Google removed an app as well as two videos from YouTube related to the campaign, called Smart Voting.
The move was seen as the biggest concession the tech giants have made to Kremlin demands to delete content from opponents and it has alarmed liberal Russians that it is a step toward the companies accepting broader censorship in Russia.
Apple and Google have largely declined to comment on the matter, except to indicate they were following local laws.
Russia’s government has pressed Google, Facebook and Twitter for years to remove more content critical of president Vladimir Putin’s rule, imposing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines on the companies. But the Kremlin had stopped short of blocking the platforms, partly because it lacked the technical capacity to do so and because it feared a backlash at home and internationally.
Some experts believe that calculus has shifted though, and that the government is now prepared to take a hard line. Since earlier this year, Roskomnadzor has slowed down Twitter, causing videos and photos to load poorly.
Google, in particular, has faced increased pressure in recent weeks. In the days before the company deleted the Navalny voting content, bailiffs visited its Moscow office to demand unpaid fines imposed by the censor. Google and Apple representatives were also summoned before a committee of the Russian senate, where the companies were accused of enabling “election interference.” The New York Times reported that Google deleted the Navalny materials after Russian authorities threatened to prosecute specific employees at its Moscow office.
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