Some analysts have suggested that the government believes YouTube is too popular to block without risking a political pushback or increasing the popularity of VPNs. But others argue that the Google exemption is connected to the company’s trump card, which is sitting in the pockets of roughly 75 percent of Russians. “Most smartphones in Russia are Android [which runs on Google’s operating system], not Apple, because they’re cheaper,” says Sergey Sanovich, a research associate at Princeton University. “It’s significantly technically harder to censor mobile data and applications as opposed to websites.”
Blocking some Google services without affecting others might also be difficult, says Karen Kazaryan, director and founder of the Moscow-based Internet Research Institute. “Google cloud infrastructure is a very complex thing,” Kazaryan says. “When you start trying to block something, you can accidentally block something unrelated and then some critical service will just stop working.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine simply intensified the problems Google’s subsidiary already faced in the country. Over the years, the Moscow office has wrestled with increasingly strict laws governing the internet and a steady stream of fines, ranging from $11,000 to $100 million, for its refusal to take down content. Google told WIRED there will be no change to YouTube’s content moderation policies linked to its bankruptcy filing.
This is also not the first time Google has shut down an office in Moscow. In 2014, it moved its engineers out of the city to protest new data protection rules. But in recent years, the stakes have become higher. In September 2021, Russian authorities visited the home of one of Google’s top executives, telling her to delete an app linked to activist Alexei Navalny from the Google Play Store or face prison. When Google put the executive up in a hotel under a different name, the same agents turned up at her room to tell her the clock was still ticking, according to the Washington Post, which did not name the executive. Within hours, the app had been deleted.
Kazaryan thinks part of the reason Google has persevered in Russia, despite so many challenges, is because its cofounder is Russian. “I believe it is a bit sentimental because of Sergey Brin,” he says. Brin, who lived in the Soviet Union until he was 5 years old, has previously spoken about how his experience growing up in a political system that censored speech shaped Google’s policy, “It has definitely shaped my views, and some of my company’s views,” he told 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 percent of its global revenues came from Russia in 2021, up from 0.5 percent the year before, which would amount to $2.5 billion—the same amount it made from the UK in 2020. The company would have been expecting those revenues to grow, says Dan Ives, an analyst at Wedbush. “Google went down the same path as Microsoft, where there was a lot of hope that they could expand within Russia over the next decades,” he says.