Moscow has threatened to retaliate if Google gives less prominence in its search results to articles from Russian state-funded news websites Sputnik and RT, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.
Interfax quoted Aleksandr Zharov, head of Russia's Roskomnadzor media regulator, as saying that his agency sent a letter to Google on November 21 requesting clarification of comments over the weekend by Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google's parent company Alphabet, in which Schmidt said Google was "working on...de-ranking" the Russian news websites.
"We will receive an answer and understand what to do next," Interfax quoted Zharov as saying. "We hope our opinion will be heard, and we won't have to resort to" what the agency described as "possible retaliatory measures."
Schmidt, speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum on November 18, responded to a question about allegations that Sputnik spreads "propaganda" in its articles and said Google was working to give less prominence to "those kinds of websites," rather than delisting them.
"It's basically RT and Sputnik. We're well aware and we're trying to engineer the systems to prevent it," Schmidt said.
The Russian government funds Sputnik and RT, formerly known as Russia Today. U.S. intelligence agencies have said both of the websites spread misinformation and published negative stories about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"We didn't see this a few years ago," Schmidt said. "We didn't realize this could be so pervasive," he noted, adding that the technology industry had been "naive."
"Ten years ago, I thought that everyone would be able to deal with the Internet because the Internet, as we all knew, was full of falsehoods as well as truths. But faced with the data, from what we've seen from Russia in 2016, and with other actors around the world, we have to act."
Schmidt said Russian disinformation was easy to combat because it involves "amplification around a message" that is "repetitive, exploitative, false [or] likely to have been weaponized."
"My own view is that these patterns can be detected, and that they can be taken down or de-prioritized," he said. "We don’t want to ban the sites. That's not how we operate.... I am strongly not in favor of censorship."
Google spokeswoman Andrea Faville said Google's efforts to demote search results that link to low-quality, false, and deliberately misleading content began in April. Google is also working to highlight authoritative content, she said.
Faville said Google analyzes a website's attributes and, based on that assessment, gives it a higher or lower position in search results.
RT's editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, issued a statement saying that Google’s own internal review system had found that the news site had broken no rules.
Sputnik on November 21 quoted Roskomnadzor's Zharov as saying he would monitor "how discriminating this measure will be in its practical embodiment."
"It is obvious that we will defend our media," Sputnik quoted Zharov as saying.
RT has previously been penalized by Google. The television network received guaranteed ad revenue from Google's YouTube outlet until September, when it was removed as preferred partner.
With reporting by Reuters, Motherboard, and The Guardian