YouTube is the lifeline of the Russian opposition. It is also keeping them on the ground.

Unlike some other platforms, YouTube has not yet been blocked by the Russian government, and it is also available to Russians who access the Internet with virtual private network, or VPN, connections.

A channel that Pevchikh and his colleagues created to cover the war in Ukraine has seen rapid growth from Russians wanting to know more, she said.

When I pointed out this dichotomy – that in the United States YouTube is just as often accused of spreading false information – she said it was one of the few ways her organization and others could circumvent the state-run propaganda machine that dominates more mainstream media.

“YouTube is primarily the source of news that is not fake or real news,” Pevchikh said.

That doesn’t mean Pevchikh and Navalny, who is in a Russian penal colony, are happy with YouTube and its parent company, Google.

Navalny wrote in a recent Thread of 31 tweets posted on Twitter that it was Google’s corporate decision to stop selling ads in Russia that is hurting the opposition movement’s ability to reach more eyeballs.

Here are excerpts from the Twitter feed, translated from Russian by Google:

  • “19/31 @Google and @Meta stopped selling ads in Russia. And this seriously complicated the work of the opposition. Our organization has good opportunities, only 3 of our YouTube channels have 6.5, 2, 7 and 1.1 million subscribers, but that’s not enough to run a national campaign.”
  • “20/31 After all, we have to agitate not supporters, but opponents and skeptics. And when we were able to run well-targeted ads, it worked. We fought Putin’s propaganda and we won.”
  • “24/31 Even if such publicity is purchased at the full price of trade, its cost pales in comparison to the cost of war.”
  • “25/31 A javelin throw costs $230,000. For the same price, we will get 200 million views of advertisements in different formats and provide at least 300,000 clicks or at least 8 million views of a video with the truth about what is happening. in Ukraine.”

No comment. Neither Google nor YouTube responded directly to Navalny’s request to reinstate the ads.

But the request may not be as straightforward as Navalny suggests. Google also has a policy that prohibits ads that capitalize on sensitive events, such as the war in Ukraine.

What YouTube does. A YouTube spokesperson told me about the March decision to suspend YouTube ads in Russia.

At the same time, YouTube announced that it would block content from Russian state media like RT and Sputnik across Europe and the rest of the world. world, including Russia. YouTube also says its systems direct users of the platform to more reliable sources of information. Read YouTube’s Twitter feed.

There is a difference between allowing monetization, as Navalny wants, and allowing access to content.

Access is a multi-lane street. Russia has blocked Facebook and Twitter and restricted access to Google News, although many Russians manage to circumvent these restrictions through VPN connections.
Reports of threats against technical managers. The Washington Post reported in March that Russian-based executives for Apple and Google were threatened in September by Russian operatives, and the companies later took down an app meant to help Russians hold protest votes against Putin in a presidential election. a legislative election.
And two of the world’s largest internet service providers, Lumen Technologies and Cogent Communications, which provide critical internet infrastructure to Russia. announced their plans in March sever ties with the country, citing fears of cyberattacks on the West from Russia. But the end result is also difficult for ordinary Russians to access the Internet.

Struggling to stay connected. Natalie Krapiva is the technical and legal adviser to Access Now, a group that lobbies for digital rights around the world. She told me her group had received complaints from independent Russian media, non-governmental organizations, activists and human rights organizations all trying to figure out how to stay online and connected.

Disconnect independent voices. She mentioned companies like Slack, the communications platform, and Mailchimp, the newsletter and website company, which are pulling out of Russia and unplug human rights and independent media.

A Slack spokesperson declined to comment for this story. The company has already pointed to the international sanctions against Russia as the reason for leaving.

Mailchimp will maintain some accounts in Russia. A Mailchimp spokesperson said while the organization stands by its earlier decision to suspend all accounts in Russia, it is now making exceptions.

“We recognize that many people and organizations in Russia oppose war and share our values, including some of our customers affected by this policy,” the company said in a statement. a statement, which adds that Mailchimp now has a “process to review and reinstate certain accounts, including independent news outlets, civil rights, and similar groups.”

It would not offer details on which or how many accounts have been reinstated.

Greater fears of losing access. One group that uses Slack and was cut from Mailchimp is OVD-Info, an independent human rights group who sought to use technology to document Russia’s arrests of protesters after the outbreak of war in Ukraine. CNN has repeatedly linked to his work.

Its co-founder, Daniel Beilinson, told me his real concern was that Russia would lose access to the internet and the outside world.

“It’s a flow of information between Russia and the world,” he said. “It’s really important for Russians who want to receive independent information, but also for other countries who want to understand what’s going on inside Russia.”

An exception to the sanctions. In early April, the US Treasury Department, after lobbying groups like Access Now, made an exception to US sanctions for companies that provide internet and telecommunications in Russia.

“Putin’s goal is to isolate people, keep them face to face with propaganda, cut off all alternative information and suppress all independent voices,” Krapiva said. “And by cutting internet services, we are helping it.”

“Splinternet” or a “digital iron curtain”. Repressive governments love the idea of ​​easily restricting internet access. Iran, which moved to centralize control of the internet as it faced years of sanctions, was able to essentially press a circuit breaker to disconnect its population and quell protests in 2019.
Russia and China, the largest authoritarian powers, have both moved to exercise greater control over the internet, a process that could lead to a less open internet. Some people refer to this darker future as “splinternet”.
CNN’s Rishi Iyengar wrote about Russia’s efforts to isolate the country from the open internet as a “digital iron curtain”. The US government, in a throwback to the Cold War, is working hard to find ways around this.
Iyengar also wrote about Russia’s lack of technical know-how to completely cut itself off from Western technology.
Appetite for independent information. CNN’s Brian Fung wrote about how Russians are finding ways around Putin’s crackdown on news.
The CEO of the US-based web security company Cloudflare’s Matthew Prince documented in an April blog post that while the rest of the world continues to be most interested in downloading gaming and social media apps, Russians are downloading VPN tools for access. Private and secure Internet to bypass government blocks.

Cloudflare also saw an increase in traffic from Russia to US, French and UK news outlets, though it didn’t specify which ones.

Net Neutrality. A US-based organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is one of many helping to facilitate the backbone of the internet and has rejected calls from Ukraine to cut Russia’s access to the global internet.

“As part of our mission, we maintain neutrality and act in favor of the global Internet,” wrote ICANN CEO Göran Marby in a March letter responding to Ukrainian officials. Learn more about ICANN.

Cloudflare also rejected calls to leave Russia.

“Our conclusion, in consultation with experts (from government and civil society), is that Russia needs more internet access, not less,” Prince wrote in a blog post in March.

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