This week, Google's YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki told Bloomberg that free speech is a “core value” for Google. Her assertion comes a week after Google and Apple deleted a Russian political opposition app from their app stores after Russian censors demanded they do so.
The app’s purpose was simple enough; it acted as a voting guide to encourage all opposition voters to vote for the candidate in their district most likely to beat candidates from the ruling party, United Russia. The app was part of a “smart voting” strategy developed by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Last year, Navalny was nearly killed by a nerve-agent attack suspected to be carried out by Russian agents on a flight in Siberia. After he recovered from the attack in Berlin, he returned to Moscow, only to be arrested upon arrival.
In his first interview from prison in August, Navalny described his experience to The New York Times, saying, “You need to imagine something like a Chinese labor camp, where everybody marches in a line and where video cameras are hung everywhere. There is constant control and a culture of snitching.”
Russian authorities accused Google and Apple of interfering with Russia’s September elections by hosting Navalny’s app on their platforms. Yet, free speech is hardly election interference.
Confident leaders don’t feel threatened by political opposition, and they don’t eliminate apps that encourage citizens to vote for other candidates.
Russian President Putin has gone to great lengths to suppress activism from opposition leaders—and in doing so, crush freedom of speech. Sadly, Google is enabling these human rights violations without putting up much of a fight.
Some Google employees are reportedly outraged about the move and frustrated that their company was so quick to accommodate the demands of foreign governments that have little respect for basic freedoms.
In addition to deleting the “smart voting” app, Google also blocked YouTube videos and Google Docs files meant to coordinate opposition voting. When tech companies like Google suppress speech on behalf of the Russian government or other oppressors, they are facilitating human rights abuses.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Google disallowed Live Action’s pro-life advertisements for abortion pill reversals earlier this month. Google claimed that “medical questions” about the reversal pill motivated the decision to disallow the ads. In actuality, the ads were cut shortly after abortion activists asked the company to stop running them.
Actions like these reveal something ugly about tech giants like Google. They are not actually concerned about upholding free speech or standing for human rights—at home or abroad.
Similarly, major U.S. companies like Disney have threatened to boycott U.S. states that pass pro-life laws, supposedly out of concern for a woman’s bodily autonomy and “right” to abortion. However, in the credits of Mulan, Disney happily thanked the same Xinjiang police units responsible for detaining one to three million innocent Uyghur Muslims in China, forcibly sterilizing Uyghur women, and aborting their children.
Tech giants’ concern about U.S. legislation and simultaneous disregard for egregious human rights violations in China and Russia is the height of hypocrisy. Americans should keep this history of duplicity in mind the next time Google or other corporations lecture or threaten states about policy decisions and claim to value “free speech.”