Russia has added California-based Google to its growing list of alleged Western culprits whom it accuses of calling on Muscovites to attend protests, some of which have been held without official authorization.
Roskomnadzor, the nation’s communications regulator, specifically pointed out Google’s video-sharing platform YouTube in a statement published on August 11 for promoting rallies a day after the largest protest against the Kremlin in nearly eight years.
In a letter sent to the U.S.-based tech giant, the regulator asked Google to stop the advertisement of such “illegal mass events.”
“According to available information, several entities possessing YouTube channels have bought advertising instruments [such as push notifications] with the aim of distributing information about unsanctioned [illegal] mass events, including those aimed at disrupting regional and federal elections,” Roskomnadzor said in the statement.
The Kremlin’s attack on Google comes just days after U.S. President Donald Trump said he is “watching Google very closely” for bias in American elections.
Moscow has also accused the U.S. government and German state-financed broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) of encouraging protests that have taken place weekly since late July over the refusal of election officials to register independent and opposition candidates to the September 8 vote for the municipal legislature.
On August 9, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned a high-level U.S. diplomat to protest the embassy having published a proposed map of the August 3 rally’s route in Moscow from a week earlier.
A day earlier, Germany’s charge d’affaires in Moscow was told by her
Russian interlocutor that “Russia reserves the right to hold Deutsche Welle to account under Russian law if such calls happen again,” regarding alleged calls to protest.
“DW has rejected the allegations, believing them to be connected to the arrest of correspondent [Sergei] Dik,” who was detained on July 27 while reporting on an opposition rally in Moscow amid a violent police crackdown on protesters, DW said in a separate report.
The United States has denied the accusations as baseless and without merit.
Up to 60,000 people rallied in Moscow and at least five other cities on August 10 to demand that officials allow independent candidates on the ballot in an upcoming municipal vote, the independent monitoring group White Counter said, making it the largest anti-government demonstration since 2011.
Police put the figure at around 20,000.
More than 350 protesters were detained countrywide, 256 of whom in Moscow, independent rights watchdog OVD-Info said on its website.
Seventy-nine were detained in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city, 13 in Rostov-on-Don, two in Bryansk, and two in Syktyvkar.
Independent candidates to the city legislature have accused the election commission and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin of abusing their power to keep them off the ballot. Members of the city Duma have the right to propose legislation and approve Moscow's $43 billion budget.
The August 10 protest drew about three times the number of people compared with previous rallies this summer after popular Russian personalities including YouTube star Yury Dud, rapper Oxxxymiron, and comic Danila Poperechny used their social-media pages to call on their millions of subscribers to attend.
In their statements to followers, Dud and Oxxxymiron criticized the state crackdown on protesters over the past few weeks, including the mass arrests and police beatings. Nearly 1,400 people were detained during a July 27 protest in Moscow.
“You certainly can not support what the government has done in the last few weeks,” Dud said August 8 on social media. “I will attend the meeting to support those already arrested and against police lawlessness.”
Dud has more than 5 million YouTube followers, Poperechny 2.5 million, while Oxxxymiron has more than 1.3 million.
The Kremlin and government-friendly tycoons control the nation’s television stations and most popular newspapers. The protests have received scant coverage on national television.
State-run Rossiskaya Gazeta published a photo report of the rally showing demonstrators who allegedly support Ukraine, LGBT rights, fans of tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and people with tattoos.
However, social-media outlets like Google and Twitter have been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side as they allow citizens to get news outside state control. More than 1.4 million people watched Russian journalist Ilya Varlamov’s four-minute video of the August 10 protest on his YouTube channel.
As a result, Russia has sought to extend its influence over social media by criminalizing certain online anti-government speech, blacklisting many websites and requiring Internet companies like Google to store data on local users inside the country. Google has so far refused to comply with some of the new laws and been fined.
As the protests broke out last month, a deputy of Russia's ruling party submitted a bill to limit foreign ownership in important Internet companies to 20 percent. The bill is aimed at changing the ownership structure of Yandex -- often called the Russian Google, Moscow news agencies reported.
Russia has often accused the United States and other foreign countries of being behind popular discontent without offering evidence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was behind the street protests that erupted in Moscow in 2011 and 2012, the biggest during Putin’s 20 years in power.
Andrei Klimov, head of the Committee for the Defense of State Sovereignty in Russia’s upper parliament house, the Federation Council, said August 11 that Russia's "foreign opponents took advantage of information and computer technologies (including popular video hosting YouTube) in order to manipulate Russian citizens who attended" the unauthorized Moscow protest, TASS news agency reported.
Neither Roskomnadzor nor Klimov gave evidence to back up their claim. Google did not immediately reply to a request from RFE/RL for comment.