Google’s Russian empire faces an uncertain future

Some analysts have suggested that the government thinks YouTube is too popular to block without risking political backsliding or increasing the popularity of VPNs. But others argue that Google’s exemption is tied to the company’s asset, which is in the pockets of about 75% of Russians. “Most smartphones in Russia are Android [which runs on Google’s operating system], not Apple, because they are cheaper,” says Sergey Sanovich, research associate at Princeton University. “It’s technically much more difficult to censor data and mobile apps than websites.”

Blocking certain Google services without affecting others could also be difficult, says Karen Kazaryan, director and founder of the Moscow-based Internet Research Institute. “Google’s cloud infrastructure is a very complex thing,” says Kazaryan. “When you start trying to block something, you may accidentally block something unrelated and then some critical services will stop working.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine only compounded the problems the Google subsidiary was already facing in the country. Over the years, the Moscow office has grappled with increasingly strict internet laws and a steady stream of fines, ranging from $11,000 to $100 million, for its refusal to remove content. Google told WIRED there would be no changes to YouTube’s content moderation policies related to its bankruptcy filing.

This is also not the first time that Google has closed an office in Moscow. In 2014, it moved its engineers out of town to protest new data protection rules. But in recent years, the stakes have gotten higher. In September 2021, Russian authorities visited the home of one of Google’s top executives, telling him to remove an app linked to activist Alexei Navalny from the Google Play Store or face jail. When Google moved the executive to a hotel under a different name, the same agents showed up in her room to tell her that the weather was still ticking, according to the Washington Post, who did not name the executive. Within hours, the app had been removed.

Kazaryan thinks part of the reason Google has persevered in Russia, despite so many challenges, is that its co-founder is Russian. “I think it’s a bit sentimental because of Sergey Brin,” he said. Brin, who lived in the Soviet Union until the age of 5, once explained how his experience growing up in a political system that censored speech shaped Google’s politics: “It definitely shaped my opinions, and some of my company’s opinions,” he said The New York Times in 2010.

The company’s Russian subsidiary also made billions of dollars in revenue. In an earnings call, Google said 1% of its global revenue came from Russia in 2021, up from 0.5% the previous year, which would amount to $2.5 billion, the same amount as ‘he made from the UK in 2020. The company would have been expecting those revenues to grow, says Wedbush analyst Dan Ives. “Google followed the same path as Microsoft, where there was a lot of hope that they could expand into Russia over the next few decades,” he says.