[Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect actions taken by Apple, Roku and DirecTV]
The European Union has taken an unprecedented decision in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Last yesterday, the EU announced its decision to ban Kremlin-based media outlets. The decision will result in a complete ban on state-owned Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, as well as their subsidiaries in the EU.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the state media machine as a tool to justify his attack on Ukraine. In Russia, the state media channels have been portraying the invasion as a mere occupation. Ursula von der Leyen, President of EU says that these platforms have been used to “justify Putin’s war and to sow division in our Union.”
A ban on Russia’s state-owned media
As Russia began building its troop movement around the border shared with Ukraine, there was a sense of belief that Putin is pulling a bluff. His invasion was seen as an intimidation at first but the attack and followup call to put Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on high alert has shown that this is no longer a war between Russia and Ukraine alone.
The European Union and other global powers have sought an alternative force to deter Russia from making any further inroads into Ukraine. Putin’s literal nuclear option is being met with financial firepower. The European Union has already joined hands with the US to cut Russia off the international financial system.
In a watershed moment, the EU is going further by introducing a number of steps. One of those steps is to ban Russia’s state-owned media channels from the Union. In a statement, the EU President has announced plans to develop tools to ban toxic and harmful disinformation in Europe.
However, the details on how the EU plans to implement this remains scant at this moment. One of the ways could be the EU asking major distributors to drop Russia’s state-owned media channels. It could also ask internet service providers to block access to these platforms. Lastly, it could ask online platforms like Google and Facebook to limit RT and Sputnik on their platforms.
The EU also announced plans to finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and other equipment to Ukraine. In addition to sanctions against the Kremlin, the EU is also proposing strict sanctions against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime. “Lukashenko’s regime is complicit in this vicious attack against Ukraine,” says von der Leyen.
There is also a ban on all Russian-owned, Russian registered or Russia-controlled aircraft from entering the EU airspace. These aircrafts will not be able to land, take off or fly over the territory of the European Union. The EU President is clear that this also applies to “the private jets of oligarchs.”
Roku and DirecTV remove RT
Roku, the US-based streaming media company, is removing the app for Russia Today from its Roku Channel Store in Europe. It is not clear whether the move is coming in response to the EU’s ban on Russia’s state-owned media channels. However, Reuters reports that Roku is joining other technology companies to restrict access to Russian state media outlets. Roku has extended the ban to block RT from Roku Channel worldwide while DirecTV has also dropped the platform.
Meta takes action against RT and Sputnik
Meta, the parent company of Facebook, became one of the first major tech companies to take action against Russian state media. The social media giant announced its plan to restrict access to RT and the news agency Sputnik in the European Union.
For platforms like Meta and Google, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was set to be a different challenge. They were forced to pick sides and Meta seems to be choosing Ukraine due to growing pressure from people around the world as well as governments.
We have received requests from a number of Governments and the EU to take further steps in relation to Russian state controlled media. Given the exceptional nature of the current situation, we will be restricting access to RT and Sputnik across the EU at this time.— Nick Clegg (@nickclegg) February 28, 2022
After expanding its third-party fact-checking capacity in Russia and Ukraine, Meta is now taking major action against Russia’s state media apparatus. Nick Clegg, VP of Global Affairs at Meta, says that the company has received requests from a number of “governments and the EU to take further steps in relation to Russian state controlled media.”
YouTube and TikTok ban Russian state media outlets
YouTube is joining Meta and Roku to ban Russian media outlets from its platform. The video sharing platform announced today that it will block YouTube channels associated with RT and Sputnik across Europe. The ban on Russia’s state-owned media platforms will be effective immediately.
“It’ll take time for our systems to fully ramp up. Our teams continue to monitor the situation around the clock to take swift action,” Google Europe tweeted.
Due to the ongoing war in Ukraine, we’re blocking YouTube channels connected to RT and Sputnik across Europe, effective immediately. It’ll take time for our systems to fully ramp up. Our teams continue to monitor the situation around the clock to take swift action.— Google Europe (@googleeurope) March 1, 2022
Earlier, EU Commissioner Thierry Breton and the values & transparency commissioner, Vera Jourova, spoke to Google CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki to step up efforts against Russian propaganda.
EU’s @ThierryBreton & @VeraJourova spoke with Google & YouTube CEOs, urged online platforms to step up efforts to address Russian war propaganda— Lucía Caudet (@LuciaCaudet) February 28, 2022
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The action is likely to draw retaliation from Russia, which has already proposed a major law to curtail the operations of Silicon Valley-based tech giants. RT’s YouTube channel has 4.65 million followers in English and 5.94 million followers in Spanish. Both RT and Sputnik have used American social media platforms and TikTok to grow their audience outside Russia.
Chinese-owned TikTok confirmed to the Washington Post that it will shut down access to Kremlin-controlled media outlets – RT and Sputnik – in Europe. These actions come amidst widespread misinformation around Russian invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s effort to throttle traffic to tech companies.
Apple takes action against Russian state media
Apple is following Meta, Roku, DirecTV, and others to ban Russia’s state-owned media from its platform. The iPhone maker has announced that RT News and Sputnik News will no longer be available for download from the App Store outside Russia. The announcement comes after Apple CEO Tim Cook had expressed solidarity for the Ukrainian people last week.
In addition to putting a ban on RT News and Sputnik News, Apple has also decided to halt sales of its products in Russia. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Apple had imposed limitations for Apple Pay in Russia, which was in accordance with the sanctions imposed by the US and the EU.
Apple now says it “stopped all exports into our sales channel in the country” last week. Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov had published an open letter asking Apple to cut Russia from its products, services, and App Store. In addition to halting sales, Apple is also turning off traffic and live incident reports in Apple Maps in Ukraine.
In an email to employees obtained by The Verge, Apple CEO Tim Cook addressed the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. He acknowledged the company is working to support teams in Ukraine and across the region. It has also contacted every employee, assisting them and their families during these tough times.
Cook also adds that Apple is donating to humanitarian relief efforts and providing aid for the unfolding refugee crisis. He also adds that the company will match employee donations at a rate of 2:1 for eligible organisations. The company is planning to make retroactive donations starting from February 25th.