U.S. tech giants are under pressure from both Russia and the West to respond to the conflict in Ukraine, highlighting their power over global discourse but also escalating a recent trend in which their businesses are squeezed by geopolitical events.
Analysts say the conflict could accelerate the fracturing of the internet, which not so long ago was largely split between China and the rest of the world. Increasingly, big tech companies are beholden to a patchwork of local rules, leading some to believe the "splinternet" is coming closer to reality.
In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian officials restricted access to Meta Platforms Inc.’s Facebook products because the platform allegedly moved to block the pages of four Russian media outlets; Russia took similar action against Twitter Inc.
YouTube said it would pause the ability of several Russian channels to monetize and would limit recommendations to them, after U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.) wrote to the Alphabet Inc. unit, as well as to other major tech companies, urging them to do more to combat Russian influence operations.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials called on Apple Inc. to prohibit Russian access to its App Store.
"We need your support — in 2022, modern technology is perhaps the best answer to the tanks, multiple rocket launchers … and missiles," Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukrainian deputy prime minister, wrote in a letter to Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook.
Mr. Cook said in a tweet that he was deeply concerned about the conflict and that Apple was supporting local humanitarian efforts. The company otherwise declined to comment.
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter representatives said they continue to monitor developments and could take further action. Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, captured the balancing act platforms face, saying that the company wants Facebook’s apps to continue to offer a place where people can "make their voices heard, share what’s happening and organize."
The Russian Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Last year, authorities in at least 48 countries pursued new rules for tech companies on content, data or competition, according to Freedom House, a nonprofit group that tracks the global state of democracy and internet policy. The policies allowed Nigerian authorities to block Twitter after it deleted a post from the nation’s president about secessionist groups that was deemed threatening. The more assertive policies also could be seen in India’s ban of video app TikTok, a subsidiary of the Chinese company ByteDance Ltd., after a border skirmish with China.
The pressure goes beyond social-media platforms. Last year, Russia classified Netflix Inc. as an audiovisual provider, a change that could force it to begin offering state television channels to its estimated 1 million subscribers in the country, according to Moscow Times. It was an outgrowth of an Internet sovereignty law passed in 2019 that gave the government more control over content for Russian users.
The changing landscape has pinched sales and cut into profits by forcing companies to increase spending on compliance with local laws, according to analysts, former executives and legal scholars. They said the phenomenon has curtailed some internet users’ access to services and information, and forced companies to assess whether they should subscribe to largely U.S. values about freedom of information or adhere to local laws that are often in conflict with those principles.
"This was decades in the making, and it is getting worse because countries are adopting more and more serious rules around content," said David Kay e, a law professor at University of California at Irvine and author of "Speech Police: The Global Struggle to Govern the Internet."
The most significant European war in 80 years has now revived a decades-old term about the rise of digital nationalism—"the splinternet," in which local laws and policies have created a series of national internets.
The effect is a drag on businesses, with margins being squeezed by having to hire more staff, said Brian Wieser, an ad-industry analyst with GroupM. "A few thousand employees could run the products, but individual countries imposing obligations makes that impossible," Mr. Wieser said
Google has reported that the number of government requests it receives to remove content has increased fivefold since 2015 to about 50,000 requests annually. Facebook has reported a nearly 40% increase in requests over the same period to about 90,000 requests for the year ended in June 2021.
Though Russia is unique, because it has a homegrown social network, VK, and search engine, Yandex, with more market share than Facebook and Google, it is still a sizable market for those and other tech companies. Google, Apple and Facebook all have operations and employees on the ground.
In the months ahead of its invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin sought more control over those companies by signing into law a policy that requires companies with an audience of at least 500,000 people to set up offices in Russia that would be responsible for violations of its laws.
"It creates potentially a hostage situation for staff," said Daphne Keller, a fellow at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center and former associate general counsel at Google. She said policies like Russia’s have also expanded the debate inside countries from being about which content should be taken down to which content should stay up.
As an example, she pointed to a report that Russia’s internet agency this week demanded that Google unblock the channel of a separatist leader in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, even as U.S. sanctions suggested such channels be taken down.
"It’s a weird tug of war," she said.
Nu Wexler, a former policy communications staffer at Google, Facebook and Twitter, said some companies might ignore requests and rules in small countries with weaker ad markets. "When it’s a large country with a large ad market and employees in that country, it’s a more difficult calculation," he said.
The issue is also creating strains inside the companies. At Google, staff posted on the company’s internal messaging system about what could be done to support Ukraine in the wake of the invasion. Someone proposed taking Russia’s state-backed media channel, RT, off YouTube, according to people familiar with the post.
A Google spokeswoman declined to comment on whether it would take RT down globally. It has restricted access to the channel in Ukraine and may take further actions, she said.