By complying with restrictions Alexander Lukashenko's government has imposed, these companies have "become tools for a totalitarian and authoritarian regime to put pressure on civil society instead of helping to promote independent media," the exiled journalist Natalia Belikova told the Financial Times in January.
"It is becoming increasingly clear that technology companies have enormous power — perhaps, in some cases, even more than those in political power," Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya told DW in January on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos. "It is important that these companies are on the side of good and committed to promoting democratic values."
Russian media have the same problem. "It is clear to us that algorithms by Google, the world's largest search engine, inevitably contribute to Russian state propaganda because links to state and pro-government media dominate in search results and recommended news generated for any particular user," said Sarkis Darbinyan, co-founder of the digital rights organization Roskomsvoboda.
If a user tries to access a blocked media company, the search engine algorithm marks the link as inactive, which makes the website disappear from the search results. Meanwhile, unblocked media with similar headlines appear instead.
Lev Gershenzon, the former head of the news service at Russia's largest search engine, Yandex, and founder of the news portal The True Story, told DW that there is another problem.
"Google's algorithms don't take into account that authoritarian regimes expend enormous resources to popularize websites that benefit them artificially."
Google focuses too much on the number of views, he said, which prioritizes websites with fake news and conspiracy theories.
"When the algorithm was developed, the idea was initially good: to prevent sites with illegal content from appearing in the search results," Darbinyan said.
But the algorithm can also be used with bad intent. "We want the platforms to remove illegal content from the internet," said Matthias Kettemann, co-head of the internet policy section at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law. "That's important. But if a state abuses this, for example, by declaring any criticism of the government illegal, that is a law violation. Then you can use the same tools to make legitimate criticism disappear on the internet."
'No public dialogue'
In the summer, Roskomsvoboda was among the many human rights organizations that signed on to a paper presented to Google by US digital rights NGO Access Now at the annual global RightsCon conference in Costa Rica. The paper highlights the challenges independent media faces because of restrictions imposed by IT giants.
Following the sanctions against Russia, many tech companies have shut down their offices, services and support there, restricting user access, the report states. The shutdown has made the work of independent media increasingly difficult, with Russian society becoming increasingly isolated in the face of state propaganda, according to the report.
"There is still no public dialogue with the big tech companies," said Gershenzon, who has been working on the issue for about a year.
Darbinyan said Google was "not particularly interested in changing its algorithms because of a few human rights groups." Meta, Darbinyan said, has been more open to civil society.
Truly protecting employees?
Kettemann said Google and other companies in Russia, Belarus and China were in a bind — forced to comply with the authorities' requirements to prevent endangering their employees. If the European Commission were to threaten Google with sanctions to force the unblocking of independent media websites, the company could be banned altogether in Russia. "And that, in turn, would result in even more severe cuts, both in terms of its own revenues and also for the communication environment," Kettemann said.
Darbinyan said Google had already effectively left the Russian market. "Paid products no longer work in Russia due to problems with Visa and Mastercard," Darbinyan said. "Google has not even tried to restore payment options for users or monetized Russian channels to support independent media and bloggers who live off advertising revenue."
To side with independent media in Russia and Belarus, the search engine would have to change its algorithm worldwide, which would be very expensive.
"It could also severely affect SEO optimization," Darbinyan said, "which is used by thousands or even millions of companies on the internet."
According to the Financial Times report, EU officials said they had no basis for imposing fines or taking legal action against IT companies that don't help dissident journalists and writers in Belarus and elsewhere.
"Formally, the EU Commission has few options with regard to the behavior of an American company in a third country," Kettemann said. "However, as part of enforcing the Digital Services Act, the commission can, of course, monitor platforms that are also active in Europe — at least concerning their activities in Europe. In this context, it can also provide guidance on how these platforms should behave in non-European countries."
Gershenzon said coercion by politicians and public representatives would be "a bad path," as officials don't fully understand how technology works. Instead, the tech companies would do better to recognize the problem, take responsibility and act. "But this has yet to be seen," Gershenzon said, "and the fight against fakes and propaganda is only occurring verbally."
This article was originally published in Russian.