Big tech giants are 'competing with states', Putin warns

Big tech giants are ‘competing with states’, Putin warns after Russia tells internet firms to delete posts backing Navalny protests

  • Putin said tech firms are ‘not just economic giants’ but ‘competing with the state’
  • It comes as Russia clashes with foreign internet firms about Navalny protests 
  • Several European countries have voiced disquiet about US tech giants’ power

Vladimir Putin today sounded a warning about the influence of global tech giants which he said were ‘competing’ with national governments, after Russia told internet firms to take down posts that had fuelled Alexei Navalny-inspired protests.  

Putin told the virtual Davos summit that tech companies were ‘not just economic giants… in some areas they are already de facto competing with the state’. 

‘We just saw it all in the United States,’ he added, referring to the Capitol riot incited by Donald Trump which led to the then-president being banned from Twitter – a move which has caused disquiet in several European countries. 

Putin’s comments come as Russia ramps up pressure on the activities of foreign tech giants, which are not subject to the same state censorship as most media outlets. 

Moscow earlier this week accused US tech platforms of interfering in Russia’s internal affairs during the anti-government protests egged on by Navalny.  

Vladimir Putin watches a session of the virtual Davos summit today where he warned about the power of big tech firms which he said were ‘competing’ with national governments 

Hungary has launched a so-called ‘digital freedom’ fight against US tech giants which it accuses of censorship and suspects could intervene in next year’s parliamentary election.

Donald Trump’s Twitter ban has raised fears in Hungary that the same thing will happen to hardline PM Viktor Orban, a staunch Trump supporter.   

‘We all have to be prepared for such a situation,’ Gabor Kubatov, a vice-chairman of Orban’s ruling party Fidesz, said. 

On Tuesday, Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said the government ‘will propose a law to the Parliament this spring’ aimed at curbing the power of bit tech.

‘They could (arbitrarily) switch off bakers, hairdressers, pensioners, teachers, small businesses and state leaders as well,’ she said after a meeting of her ministry’s ‘Digital Freedom Committee’.

The combative Varga, 40, previously accused tech giants of ‘systematic abuses’ including ‘shadow bans’ that allegedly restrict accounts for political purposes.

‘To reduce their reach, Facebook also limits the visibility of Christian, conservative, right-wing opinions,’ she said in a message on her own Facebook page last week.   

Fidesz is neck-and-neck in polls against an opposition alliance ahead of the election scheduled in April 2022. 

Ahead of the Navalny rallies, Russia’s media watchdog Roskomnadzor ordered several online platforms, including YouTube and Instagram, to delete posts by users calling for protesters to attend demonstrations. 

The chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign interference committee, Vasily Piskaryov, said today that the head of TikTok’s Russian branch had been invited in for a conversation.

Piskaryov was quoted by the TASS news agency as saying that ‘questions had piled up’ about the China-based video-sharing service.

In recent months, TikTok has emerged as a popular platform for young Russians to express their political views.

Hashtags dedicated to Navalny have been trending on TikTok, garnering more than 1.5billion views, after the anti-corruption campaigner was jailed on his return to Russia from Germany.

Putin said today it was unclear where the line is between a ‘successful global business’ and ‘attempts to crudely, at their own discretion, control society’. 

His comments echo those of European leaders including Angela Merkel who voiced concern about Trump’s Twitter ban and the power it gave to US tech giants.   

Trump’s Twitter account was permanently suspended earlier this month after he caused the riot at the Capitol and continued to use Twitter to spread his spurious claims that the 2020 election was rigged against him. 

Merkel’s spokesman said she viewed Trump’s ban as ‘problematic’, saying that freedom of opinion was a ‘fundamental right of elementary importance’. 

‘This fundamental right can be interfered with, but through the law and within the framework defined by the legislature, not according to the decision of the management of social media platforms,’ her spokesman said. 

EU governments have frequently clashed with US internet giants whom they accuse of holding too much power.   

Poland recently moved to curb the power of Facebook and Twitter by drawing up plans for a ‘freedom of speech council’ which could overrule their decisions.   

Social media sites would only be allowed to ban users for breaking Polish law under the plans unveiled by Warsaw earlier this month.  

A man is arrested by Russian police during a protest rally inspired by jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny on Saturday, during a wave of demonstrations which has led Moscow to accuse internet companies of interference in its affairs 

Putin himself signed new legislation last month allowing Russia to block or restrict access to sites that ‘discriminate’ against its media, raising fears that the Kremlin is seeking to introduce China-style controls. 

Twitter currently labels some Russian media ‘state-affiliated media’, a move decried by Moscow.

Another introduces hefty fines of up to 20 per cent of their previous year’s Russia-based turnover for sites that repeatedly fail to remove banned content. 

In Hungary, there are fears that right-wing PM Viktor Orban – a staunch Trump supporter – could be next to have his account cut off. 

On Tuesday, Hungary’s justice minister said the government ‘will propose a law to the Parliament this spring’ aimed at curbing the power of tech firms.

‘They could switch off bakers, hairdressers, pensioners, teachers, small businesses and state leaders as well,’ she said. 

France’s finance minister Bruno Le saying has also voiced doubts about Trump’s ban, telling French that it should not be for the ‘digital oligarchy’ to regulate itself.  

And Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, said that ‘we need to be able to better regulate the contents of social networks’. 

‘It is not possible for this regulation to be carried out mainly according to rules and procedures set by private actors,’ he said.  

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