The New York Times: The Role of Tech Giants in the disruptive supply chain conflicts

Barcelona March 2, 2022.- One of the most influential newspapers in the world, the New York Times, has published a diagnosis on the role of the technological giants in the new scenario. For your interest, we publish below:

Over the last few days, Google, Meta, Twitter, Telegram and others have been forced to grapple with how to wield that power, caught between escalating demands by Ukrainian, Russian, European Union and U.S. officials.

On Friday, Ukrainian leaders pleaded with Apple, Meta and Google to restrict their services inside Russia. Then Google and Meta, which owns Facebook, barred Russian state-run media from selling ads on their platforms. Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, also spoke with top European Union officials over how to counter Russian disinformation.

At the same time, Telegram, a widely used messaging app in Russia and Ukraine, threatened to shut down channels related to the war because of rampant misinformation. And this week, Twitter said it would label all posts containing links to Russian state-affiliated media outlets, and Meta and YouTube said they would restrict access to some of those outlets across the European Union to ward off war propaganda.

For many of the companies, including Facebook, Google, Twitter, the war is an opportunity to rehabilitate their reputations after facing questions in recent years over privacy, market dominance and how they spread toxic and divisive content. They have a chance to show they can use their technology for good in a way not seen since the Arab Spring in 2011, when social media connected activists and was cheered as an instrument for democracy.

But the tech companies face tricky decisions. Any missteps could be costly, adding more momentum to efforts in Europe and the United States to regulate their businesses or leading Russia to ban them altogether.

Executives inside the companies are making judgment calls about what to do, employees said. If Google, Meta, Twitter and others take some steps and not others, they might be accused of doing too little and looking halfhearted. But curbing too many services and information might also cut off ordinary Russians from the digital conversations that can counteract state-run propaganda.

“These companies want all the benefits of monopolizing the world’s communications with none of the responsibility of getting swept up in geopolitics and having to choose sides,” said Yael Eisenstat, a fellow at the Berggruen Institute, a Los Angeles think tank, who formerly led Facebook’s election integrity operations. In many ways, she said, tech companies are “in a no-win situation in the midst of an international crisis.”Traffic in Kyiv last week, days before Google stopped displaying traffic information inside Ukraine out of concerns that it could create a safety risks.Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Many of the companies have moved gingerly, said Marietje Schaake, a tech policy expert and former member of the European Parliament. While Google and Meta blocked Russian state media from selling ads on their sites last week, the companies did not bar the outlets, as many Western policymakers had urged.

As the conflict has ratcheted up, the companies have taken additional steps. On Sunday, Google’s Maps division stopped displaying traffic information inside Ukraine out of concerns that it could create safety risks by showing where people were gathering. Facebook announced that it had taken down a pro-Kremlin influence campaign and a separate hacking campaign targeting its users in Ukraine.

On Monday, Twitter began labeling all tweets containing links to Russian state-affiliated media outlets so users would be aware of the information sources. Since the conflict in Ukraine began, users have tweeted links to state-affiliated media about 45,000 times a day, the company said.

Ms. Schaake, now the international policy director at Stanford University’s Cyber Policy Center, said the measures were not enough. She said the companies must block Russian propaganda outlets and establish clearer policies about their beliefs in human rights and democracy that could be applied beyond Russia.

“The interventions under huge pressure also underline what has not been done for so long,” she said.

Others warned that there would be negative consequences if the platforms were blocked in Russia. “It’s the most important place for public debate about what’s going on,” said Andrei Soldatov, a Russian journalist and censorship expert. “Nobody would take it as a good sign if Facebook blocked access for Russian citizens.”

Google said it continues to monitor the situation in Ukraine and Twitter said it took its role in the conflict seriously. Facebook declined to comment.

Telegram’s experience illustrates the competing pressures. The app is popular in Russia and Ukraine for sharing images, videos and information about the war. But it has also become a gathering ground for war misinformation, such as unverified images from battlefields.

On Sunday, Pavel Durov, Telegram’s founder, posted to his more than 600,000 followers on the platform that he was considering blocking some war-related channels inside Ukraine and Russia because they could aggravate the conflict and incite ethnic hatred.

Users responded with alarm, saying they relied on Telegram for independent information. Less than an hour later, Mr. Durov reversed course.

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