Russia's invasion of Ukraine sent tech companies scrambling. They've suspended sales of products, halted services and pulled workers from the region. And as social platforms like Facebook and YouTube work to stamp out disinformation, search engines are caught walking a similarly fine line between preventing propaganda from spreading and censoring the information they exist to surface.
Search engines and browsers are limiting Russian misinformation websites and state-backed media outlets in search results, as well as restricting advertising. These limitations are aimed at curbing propaganda and conspiracy theories, though some have drawn the ire of free speech absolutists.
One of the first search engines to act was Bing. Parent company Microsoft announced on Feb. 28 that Bing would de-rank Russian state-controlled news sites RT and Sputnik so that the links would only turn up in search when “a user clearly intends to navigate to those pages.” Microsoft also banned the news agencies from placing ads across its ad network.
Brad Smith, president and vice chair of Microsoft, said in a blog post that the company “will make ongoing adjustments to strengthen our detection and disruption mechanisms to avoid the spread of disinformation and promote instead independent and trusted content.”
On March 3, Google paused selling ads in Russia in a ban covering search results and YouTube. The decision followed earlier restrictions in which Google barred certain Russian channels, including RT, from receiving ad revenues on its websites on Feb. 26.
As required by sanctions from the European Union, Google removed RT and Sputnik from its search results in the EU on March 9. Google has not made the same move for the U.S. or other countries. Google said in an email to Protocol that its approach is not to downrank individual sites, pointing to a blog post that said the search engine “fundamentally design our ranking systems to identify information that people are likely to find useful and reliable.”
Privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo on March 10 announced that it would down-rank websites associated with Russian disinformation, including RT and Sputnik. For newsworthy topics, DuckDuckGo will also highlight reputable news coverage and reliable “instant answers” at the top of its search results, the company said in an email to Protocol. The move follows DuckDuckGo halting its partnership with Russian search engine Yandex on March 1.
The company said in a statement to Protocol that “down-ranking is different from censorship,” and it is using disinformation that comes from Russian-controlled websites to signal that the content produced is lower quality, similar to how the search engine would work for “spammy sites.”
“The primary utility of a search engine is to provide access to accurate information,” DuckDuckGo said in a statement to Protocol. “Disinformation sites that deliberately put out false information to intentionally mislead people directly cut against that utility.”
But DuckDuckGo’s users are apparently not happy with the move. An announcement of these changes tweeted by DuckDuckGo founder and CEO Gabriel Weinberg on Wednesday prompted thousands of responses. One user tweeted at him, “This just ruined it for me.” Another responded, “Let US decide what to believe.”
Many users responded that they would move to Brave, a self-described privacy-focused search engine and browser. Luke Mulks, vice president of business operations at Brave, tweeted that the service “is more than just a browser,” promoting its search engine as “neutral” and “private.” The company launched its browser in June 2021.
“User-first means getting out of your way,” Mulks tweeted. Brave did not respond to a request for comment from Protocol.