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Digital Football And The Virtual Free-For-All

Fake news, investigators far and wide have concluded, is a big problem. Government leaders, generally, agree. Solutions they have proposed are, unfortunately, so analogue. This video game has pivoted to algorithms.

directions hereWhen searching for the meaning of the word “ranking” officials at Russian government agency Roskomnadzor sent a letter, possibly an email, to Google. “Of course, it doesn’t happen quickly. They have a large bureaucracy,” said chief executive Aleksandr Zharov, quoted by news agency TASS (November 22). “I think we will get an answer within a week.” He could have just googled.

Roskomnadzor regulates, monitors and supervises Russian media, telecommunications and internet technologies. The letter to Google’s office in Moscow followed a news report from motherboard.vice.com (November 20) quoting Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt at the very exclusive Halifax (Canada) International Security Forum. Dr. Schmidt spoke about the internet and, well, fake news.

Asked why Google continues to include certain Russian sites as news, Dr. Schmidt offered, “We’re well aware of this one, and we’re working on detecting this kind of scenario you’re describing and deranking those kinds of sites. It’s basically RT and Sputnik. We’re well aware and we’re trying to engineer the systems to prevent it.” International TV and online channel RT (previously Russia Today) and online portal Sputnik have been widely identified by governments and intelligence agencies as integrated with Russian state disinformation campaigns.

“We don’t want to ban the sites,” Dr. Schmidt continued. “That’s not how we operate. I am strongly not in favor of censorship. I am very strongly in favor of ranking. It’s what we do.”

Using quite familiar rhetorical tools, State Duma deputy speaker Piotr Tolstoy, quoted by Kommersant (November 21), said the legislature would monitor the situation. "If global companies like Google, and Facebook say in the US Congress that they can not separate bad advertising from good, dangerous from not dangerous, we too, you know, are concerned about it. We also would like to meet and talk about how to do this in order to protect Russian citizens from dangerous content. And, if this can not be done, then let's just cover all this advertising with a legislative decision.”

Earlier this month YouTube, a Google subsidiary, removed RT from its premium ad platform. Before that Twitter blocked both RT and Sputnik from placing ads. Mr. Tolstoy noted that Google earns RUB 34 billion a year in Russia, about US$580 million. “Maybe for Google this is not a decisive amount, but I assure you that when it comes to money, immediately priorities are set very quickly among our colleagues.”

The Russian Senate (upper house) approved legislation to require foreign media operating in Russia to register as “foreign agents,” reported Deutsche Welle (November 22). A week ago the State Duma (lower house) approved the bill. It now awaits the signature of Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin. At that point foreign-owned news outlets will be required to declare ownership, financial details and identify staffing.

The US Department of Justice “requested” registration earlier this month from RT and Sputnik under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), releasing the expected moaning and groaning from RT and Sputnik editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan. RT complied. Chinese news outlets operating in the US provided FARA registration years ago.

The Russian countermeasure targets US-government funded international broadcasters Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and related websites. Russian media with foreign minority partners are in the sights. Some observers have assumed, due to the bill’s vague language, the new regulation might extend to privately- owned TV news channel CNN and, even, German international broadcaster DW (Deutsche Welle) and UK international broadcaster BBC. VOA and RFE/RL offices in Russia received letters from Roskomnadzor telling them to prepare themselves.


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