US tech giants were under intense pressure to choose a side regarding the invasion of Ukraine, facing both calls to oppose Moscow’s internationally condemned war, but also retribution from the Kremlin for his resistance.
Services like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have unique power because of their global reach and ubiquity, but they’re profit-driven businesses, so a strident stance on principle can be bad for business.
Since Moscow attacked neighbor Ukraine this week, the beleaguered nation has urged companies from Apple to Google and Netflix to cut off Russia, while Facebook said its service had been restricted for refusing to bow to Kremlin demands.
Twitter, which faced fines and slower service last year following government orders to remove certain content, announced on Saturday that its network was “restricted for certain people in Russia”.
“Western companies have provided an online space for Russians to get information about the atrocities their government is committing in Ukraine,” tweeted Alina Polyakova, president and CEO of the Center for European Policy Analysis.
“The Kremlin is acting aggressively to hide the truth,” she added.
Some companies have so far taken measured steps. For example, both Meta and YouTube, Facebook’s parent company, announced that they were restricting Russian state media’s ability to make money on their platforms.
“We are suspending the ability of a number of channels to monetize on YouTube, including several Russian channels affiliated with recent sanctions,” a statement from the company read.
“In response to a government request, we have restricted access to RT and a number of other channels in Ukraine,” he added, referring to Russian state television.
Ukraine’s defiant government, which has urged its people to fight Russian forces, has asked everyone for help, including Apple CEO Tim Cook.
“I ask you…to stop providing Apple services and products to the Russian Federation, including blocking access to the Apple Store!” Ukrainian Digital Minister Mykhailo Fedorov wrote in a letter he posted on Twitter on Friday.
Cook, tweeting the day before, wrote that he was “deeply concerned about the situation in Ukraine” and that the company would support local humanitarian efforts.
Big tech companies have struggled to deal with authoritarian governments, including Russia, where Google and Apple last year complied with government orders to remove an opposition app and faced outrage .
As the crisis in Ukraine has deepened, tech companies have been accused of not doing all they can to quell dangerous misinformation about the invasion.
“Your platforms continue to be key vectors for malicious actors — including, but not limited to, those affiliated with the Russian government — not just to spread misinformation, but to profit from it,” U.S. Senator Mark Warner wrote to Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet, on Friday.
Warner, who also sent letters to Meta, Reddit, Telegram, TikTok and Twitter, went on to accuse YouTube of continuing “to monetize content from high-profile influencers…publicly linked to Russian influence campaigns.” .
Tech companies have long touted themselves as defenders of free speech and democratic values, but they’ve also come under fire for raking in billions in ad revenue from platforms that can negatively impact users.
The invasion comes at a time when dominant social media platform Facebook has been hit by a historic drop in value due to concerns over a combination of factors including slowing growth and pressure on its key advertising business.
But experts have called for a principled stance, especially in a case loaded with the seriousness of the invasion of Ukraine.
“It’s appropriate for American companies to choose sides in geopolitical disputes, and it should be an easy decision,” Alex Stamos, a former chief security officer at Facebook, tweeted on Friday.
Another former Facebook employee, Brian Fishman, echoed that sentiment in a tweet: “Don’t let the worst in humanity use your tools.”