Attempts by the Russian government to censor the internet’s front page, Google, have been skyrocketing since 2016, reaching highs in 2018 in the wake of stricter cyber laws being implemented and in 2020/2021 in the aftermath of the poisoning of opposition politician Alexei Navalny by Russian government operatives.
In H1 of 2021, the latest available from the Google Transparency Report site, Russia filed almost 19,000 requests for more than 200,000 items to be removed from Google Search, Google News, the Google app store and YouTube, among others. Depending on a country’s laws, governments will approach Google concerning different items that they think the company shouldn’t host or make visible. Reasons include copyright infringements, defamation, fraud, hate speech or content deemed obscene. Yet, the specific offenses falling under these categories again vary depending on a country’s legislation. A court order under a specific country’s law is another way for governments to approach Google in order to remove content.
This chart shows the number of government requests per half year filed for content to be removed … [+] from Google, by country.
In the case of Russia, the Information and Communications Authority filed the overwhelming majority of requests to Google, showing the organized nature of Russia’s attempt to scrub the internet of content that it deems inappropriate. Most recently, 96% of requests from the Russian government body were heeded.
The fact that Russia is by far the nation with the most filings for Google content removal actually shows that the country’s government has not yet gained a full grasp on internet censorship but might be attempting to go down such a route. Regimes that already restrict the internet much more rigidly, for example China or Iran, do not rank high for Google removal requests as they use centralized internet control mechanisms that enable them to influence the internet in their respective countries to a high degree. In China, one important mechanism is often called the Great Firewall, but countries like Iran or North Korea also have so-called internet gateways or chokepoints that bundle all internet traffic coming in and going out of the country, making it easier to control. Just last week, one Iranian datacenter suspected to host a chokepoint caught fire, causing widespread internet outages. Cambodia and Thailand have recently been mulling the introduction of this draconian measure of internet control.
Decentralized internet in Russia?
Russia, on the other hand, has been described as a country with a decentralized internet infrastructure, sharing many connections with neighboring countries, which makes internet control difficult. In a 2018 study, Russian internet was identified as having less chokepoint potential than that of the United States, Germany or the United Kingdom. A reason for this could be the country’s earlier adoption of the world wide web compared to other restrictive nations like China, India or Egypt, which built much of their infrastructures with censorship of the web 2.0 already in mind.
Nevertheless, Russia is progressing down a path towards heightened internet censorship that started before and has only intensified since the country’s invasion of Ukraine. After the 2018 run in with Google over content removal and its registration with authorities that sent CEO Sundar Pichai to the House Judiciary Committee, 2019 saw even more far-reaching cyber legislation passed, including the so-called sovereign internet laws aiming to increasingly centralize Russian networks as well as implement the technology of Deep Packet Inspection. DPI allows even encrypted messages to be intercepted based on their sender and recipient information.
Increased scrutiny
Finally, the country has been planning to build its own national Domain Name System, which is a directory of how computers find websites based on their names. It would enable user to still find Russian domains even if they had been excluded from the centralized global DNS. This removal has been demanded by Ukraine but was denied by international coordinating body ICANN.
Russia has also blocked access to several news and social media providers as retaliation towards the U.S. and Europe, for example Facebook and Twitter as well as sites by the BBC, DW and Radio Free Europe. Other Western online services pulled their business from the country on their own accord, among them Paypal, Booking.com, Netflix and Spotify.

Charted by Statista

Correction (March 11, 2022): A previous version of this article stated that YouTube was blocked in Russia. It remains available.

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