YouTube is no stranger to pulling videos based on their content, but now it also has to worry about when a video is available. The Google-owned service has removed ads from Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny following officials' claims that the videos would violate a campaign silence law by remaining available ahead of regional governor elections on September 9th. In a statement, YouTube's Russian branch said it responded to "all justified appeals from state bodies" and said advertisers had to honor local laws. Whether or not the law was an issue is another matter.
Navalny aide Leonid Volkov maintained that YouTube pulled the videos based on an illegal complaint letter from the country's election commission, not a full-fledged order. The Russian government under Putin has regularly suppressed political dissent, and has frequently singled out Navalny as a target. His latest ads encouraged Russians to protest pension changes -- eliminating them would make it harder for Putin's opponents to rally.
The incident underscores the problems a tech giant like Google faces in serving censorship-heavy countries. It not only has to obey laws that would raise objections at home, it may have to honor arbitrary requests. At the same time, refusing to provide service doesn't necessarily help freedom of expression in these regions. It's not an easy decision, and there will be consequences whatever companies choose.