The global tech sector’s latest responses to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

4 Mar 2022

Image: © coffeemill/Stock.adobe.com

As the invasion continues in Ukraine, tech players such as Google, Reddit and SpaceX are taking new measures in response.

It has been more than a week since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, with many across Europe and the world continuing to provide whatever assistance they can.

The global tech sector is continuing in its response, and companies such as Google, Reddit, Airbnb and SpaceX have taken new measures to cut off Russia, keep Ukraine connected and stem the spread of misinformation.

Google

Future Human

Google announced yesterday (3 March) that it has stopped selling online advertising in Russia. This applies to ads on Search, YouTube and outside publishing partners, Reuters reported.

“In light of the extraordinary circumstances, we’re pausing Google ads in Russia,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement. “The situation is evolving quickly, and we will continue to share updates when appropriate.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, Russia’s communications regulator had ordered Google to stop showing ads that contained what it described as inaccurate information about the conflict.

The watchdog Roskomnadzor said that Google’s YouTube video service was running large “advertising campaigns to misinform the Russian audience”, that it said were “aimed at creating a distorted perception of current events”, Wall Street Journal reported.

After an appeal from the Ukrainian government last week, Google banned Russian state-sponsored news app RT from its Play store in Ukraine to help curb the spread of misinformation around the invasion, before going on to block apps related to RT and Sputnik from its Play store in Europe

Airbnb

Meanwhile Airbnb has made the decision to suspend its operations in Russia and Belarus. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky made the announcement in a brief message on Twitter yesterday evening.

On Monday (28 February), Chesky also said that the company is working with hosts to temporarily house 100,000 refugees fleeing from Ukraine for free.

Meanwhile, members of the public have been booking and paying for Airbnb locations in Ukraine with no intention to stay, as a means to donate to Ukrainian citizens.

Reddit

Reddit, known as ‘the front page of the internet’, has decided to take a stand by improving its measures against misinformation and banning links to Russian state media on its site.

“While many communities on Reddit already prohibited links to Russian state media outlets like RT, Sputnik, and their foreign language affiliates, we have made such restrictions universal across the site in all geographies,” the company said in a statement.

“Furthermore, we will continue not to accept advertisements that target Russia or originate from any Russia-based entity, government or private.”

Reddit said it is calibrating its automated systems and providing guidance to community members, to not remove “important and newsworthy citizen journalism” that could be mistaken as rule-breaking content. The company added that it is assisting affected colleagues in Ukraine by providing advanced income payments and supporting their relocation.

Earlier this week, Reddit put the r/Russia subreddit under ‘quarantine’ for spreading misinformation.

Twitch

Streaming platform Twitch has updated its policies to prohibit “harmful misinformation actors” from using its service.

In a statement yesterday, the company described these actors as those dedicated to persistently sharing widely disproven harmful misinformation topics, including conspiracies that promote violence.

“We’ve selected these criteria because taken together they create the highest risk of harm including inciting real-world harm,” the company said.

Twitch said it will only remove channels that meet this criteria and has framed this update as a move to prevent misinformation from getting a foothold on its platform, rather than a response to current events.

“While harmful misinformation is not currently prevalent on Twitch, we understand that it can evolve very quickly, and will continue consulting with experts to ensure our approach to curbing its potential harm is effective – as we do with all of our safety policies at Twitch,” the company said.

Apple

Following Apple’s strong stand this week after it halted product sales in Russia and removed RT from the App Store globally, the company has taken another move in support of Ukraine.

Apple Maps and weather apps now display Crimea as a part of Ukraine when being used outside of Russia. This comes after its controversial decision to show the region as part of Russian territory in these apps in Russia in 2019, or not part of any country when accessed elsewhere, in a move that was labelled as “appeasement” by critics at the time.

Starlink

With the invasion impacting internet services in Ukraine, SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted last week that his low-Earth orbit Starlink internet service would be available in the country.

Now, in order to deal with energy issues in Ukraine, Musk tweeted yesterday that he is updating Starlink’s software to reduce peak power consumption, so it “can be powered from a car cigarette lighter”.

This was in response to a tweet from Ukraine’s vice prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov, who said the country will need generators to keep Starlink’s services running.

Musk also said mobile roaming is enabled “so phased array antenna can maintain signal while on moving vehicle”.

However, the SpaceX boss later tweeted a warning when using Starlink services, as it’s the “only non-Russian communications system still working in some parts of Ukraine, so probability of being targeted is high”.

It is unclear how many Starlink terminals have been sent to Ukraine or how they will be distributed, but Fedorov has shared images on Twitter confirming that some have arrived and are functional.

ICANN

While many tech groups are doing what they can to help Ukraine with its requests for assistance, not all calls have been successful.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) sent a letter to Ukrainian officials regarding their request to cut Russia off from the global internet.

In the letter, ICANN said the request is not feasible or within the organisation’s mission, stressing that the internet is a “decentralised system” and “no one actor has the ability to control it or shut it down”, CNN reported yesterday.

Political statements in reviews

Following Google’s earlier decision to temporarily turn off live Ukrainian traffic data in Google Maps to protect citizens, it has now taken measures to stop a wave of political statements being posted as location reviews.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the global hacker group Anonymous asked followers to visit Google Maps, find a restaurant or other business in Russia, and write a review explaining “what is happening in Ukraine”.

In order to deal with this influx, Google Maps is temporarily blocking new reviews of Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian locations from appearing on its service, a company spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal.

A similar issue was detected by TripAdvisor, as its moderation systems detected an increase in fake reviews being posted on Russian pages this week. In response, the site has temporarily suspended new reviews for locations it feels are at risk and will direct those looking to share invasion updates to its community forum, a company spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com