Google asked its Russian translators not to refer to a “war” in Ukraine

Image: Reuters/Evgenia Novozhenina
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Google has reportedly prohibited its translators in Russia from using the word “war” when referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a month ago. Instead, the contractors who translate Google’s product pages and corporate communication are required to use terms like “extraordinary circumstances,” according to an email from the company that was shared with The Intercept.

The move is in reaction to Russian laws forcing news and media outlets in Russia to call the government’s invasion of its neighbor a “special military operation.” Such language is key to Russian president, Vladimir Putin’s intense domestic censorship and disinformation campaign, which has disguised the truth about Russia’s motives and apparent war crimes in Ukraine, where thousands of Ukrainian civilians have suffered and more than 1,000 have died since the war began. (More than 6 million people are now displaced.)

But is this also an example of Google putting business interests in that market first?

Not exactly, says Caitlin Vogus, deputy director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), who spoke to Quartz this week. Hundreds of global companies have left Russia in protest since it launched its war with Ukraine, but for companies that provide essential goods and services, including Google, responding to Russia’s actions while abiding by its domestic laws, including speech laws, quickly gets complicated.

Google, for the record, has stopped selling Search and YouTube ads in Russia. “While we’ve paused Google ads and the vast majority of our commercial activities in Russia, we remain focused on the safety of our remaining local employees,” the company said in a statement to Quartz in response to questions about the policy for its translators. Current laws restricting communications in Russia don’t apply to Search and YouTube, the company added.

We asked Vogus for her views on Google’s activities in Russia. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Quartz: What was your response to the story that Google asked its Russian translators not to discuss the “war” in Ukraine? Does that seem problematic?

Caitlin Vogus: I feel like Google is caught between a rock and a hard place because of this new “fake news” law that Russia has passed, which criminalizes referring to the war in Ukraine as a war, or describing it as anything other than how the government characterizes it. That’s in combination with what’s known as Russia’s landing law, which is a requirement that some tech companies, including Google, have a legal presence and open an office in the country to operate there.

Google has personnel in Russia and is required to do so by law, and that makes them extremely vulnerable to pressure from the Russian government.

Why doesn’t Google leave Russia? Is there a consensus around whether or not it should stay?  

There’s a consensus among many civil society organizations like CDT that Google should stay. We joined an open letter to the White House and world governments about the importance of ensuring that the Russian people continue to have access to the internet.

I think it’s also important that they continue to have access to services like Google Search and YouTube because those are conduits to information outside of that controlled by the Russian government. They’re sources of potentially independent information, and that’s really important for the Russian people to be able to have access to.

A company like Google has to look at each new local law requirement and make a decision when complying with those local laws. Do they go too far and violate people’s human rights?

But they also have to balance that against their interest in continuing to operate in Russia. Do the Russian people need to have access to outside sources of information?

In other words, although it may sound like Google is breaking its own don’t-be-evil code, it doesn’t have other options if it wants to protect its employees.

Right. They have to think about their people in Russia, and they also have to think about the possibility that the Russian government would shut down their services completely if they refuse to comply with the local fake news law.

How have you felt generally about the way that major US tech companies have responded to the situation? 

I think that the companies are in a difficult position because they are caught with this fake news law that’s written extremely broadly and also the landing law and that complicates all of their decision making.

This is an example of why it’s really important for companies to have human rights experts in-house who can actually advise them when these conflicts and wars arise. Even more importantly, they should be thinking about what they’re going to do in these types of situations in advance, so they have some kind of action plan in place. Of course, every conflict and war is going to be different, but it’s important to have some kind of crisis policy or plan in place that can help guide their actions in a way that’s complying with their human rights obligations.

Do you see companies being smarter about that these days? Are startups even building this need into their global expansion plans?

Established companies have had more experience, so they’ve had more time to think through these issues. We’ve seen a more immediate response by some of the bigger tech companies just because they’re more well resourced and they have been around for longer.

Unfortunately, we often also see companies paying most attention to conflicts that are happening in the global north, and not necessarily in the global south and elsewhere around the world that get left out in the media generally. That’s one inequality that tech companies need to be thinking more about: How are they responding to other conflicts happening around the world?