Big Tech’s Efforts to Support Ukraine Shift the Industry’s Role in a Time of War – CNET

Big Tech’s Efforts to Support Ukraine Shift the Industry’s Role in a Time of War – CNET

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A Ukrainian military vehicle in Kyiv. Big Tech companies have become active players in the conflict as they provide aid to Ukrainians and place restrictions on Russian state media.

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Big Tech has responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by offering assistance to Ukrainians, stymying Russia’s disinformation campaign and shuttering services Moscow’s military can use on the ground, moves that make the industry a de facto participant in the hostilities. 

At the request of the Ukrainian government, rocket company SpaceX activated satellite internet service in Ukraine through its Starlink system, a move that keeps the country connected to the web even as Russia attacks its websites. AirBnb has offered free housing to Ukrainians fleeing the fighting, and US phone carriers have waived fees to customers who need to call Ukraine. 

Big social networks, including Facebook-owner Meta, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube face familiar questions about dealing with disinformation and propaganda. All three have placed restrictions on Russian state-run media’s access to ad platforms and continue to fact-check posts deemed false. Microsoft and Google have limited downloads of Russian state-run media services from their app stores.

Separately, Google disabled a feature that displays traffic conditions in its widely used Maps app after consulting with the Ukrainian government. The move could make navigating more difficult for the Russian military. The government in Kyiv also appealed to Apple to block Russians from accessing its app store because “modern technology is perhaps the best answer to the tanks, multiple rocket launchers (hrad) and missiles.”

The actions taken by the Big Tech companies indicate a changing level of involvement for corporations caught in global conflict. While industry has always had a role in war efforts, companies weren’t often involved in battlefield actions. Now businesses are actors in the conflict. 

“They’re in essence firing a shot,” said Matthew Schmidt, a professor of national security at the University of New Haven. “That’s very different.”

Tech companies have long struggled to respond to misinformation and disinformation during elections and protests. State sanctioned violence, like the genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, has presented even more difficult decisions for companies responding to the the way their platforms are used.

And not every call for help has found support from the tech sector. Patreon, a fundraising website, suspended a campaign to raise money for Ukrainian military training because it violated policies against “funding weapons or military activity.”

Jennifer Grygiel, an associate professor at Syracuse University who studies social media and foreign policy, says the high-profile nature of the war between Ukraine and Russia brings even more scrutiny to corporate policies. Tech companies host state-run media around the world, making their decisions to boost or deemphasize content crucial. 

Facebook, YouTube and other companies are also in the position of deciding which government’s content can be monetized through ads, a common practice on social media. In other cases, social media companies label some official content as disinformation, decisions that can anger those governments. 

The decisions can make relationships among the companies and the countries in which they operate testy. But the companies may have no choice but to take action.

Meta did just that on Monday. 

The huge social media company said it would ban RT and Sputnik, two of Russia’s most important external-facing media arms across the European Union, at the request of some governments. Nick Clegg, a former UK deputy prime minister who oversees global affairs at Meta, said the company was taking the step because of the “exceptional nature of the current situation.”

The move followed a call by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the weekend for the 27-country bloc to ban Russia’s state media because of its “toxic and harmful disinformation.”

“We’ve hit a point now where what Russia has done is so bad that it’s calling attention to the abuse of propaganda on these platforms,” Grygiel said.

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