Widespread protests in Russia | Australia vs Big Tech

🧤 But mostly mitten memes

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It feels like there are now three certainties in life: death, taxes, and.... never-ending Bernie Sanders memes:

But we outran the undying memes just long enough to cook you up a fresh batch of International Intrigue goodness.

This week:

🩲 Protests sweep through Russia after Alexei Navalny was arrested for skipping bail because his underpants were poisoned. In Putin's Russia, the story writes you.

🦘 We go back to our homeland where the Australian Government has picked a fight with Google and Facebook. There's only one winner and his name rhymes with Pupert Purdoch.

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🩲 Alexei Navalny: the face of the new Russia?

One of us confused this week’s footage of Russia’s protests for scenes from the latest Bond film. We were mistaken.

The man at the centre of the action this week is actually Alexei Navalny, a man better known as President Putin’s political nemesis.

Navalny is a lawyer, anti-corruption campaigner, and the leader of the Russia of the Future party. To the extent that Russian politics has an opposition leader, Navalny is it. Oh, and he’s known as the ‘Russian Wolverine’, thanks to his knack for surviving multiple attempts to kill him.

So, what trouble has been astir, and why might he shake up Russia’s future?

ICYMI: Russia’s 23 January protests

Russians are tough. That said, it’s next-level to protest outside in a Siberian winter while risking arrest (Yakutsk hit -40c over the weekend!).

Yet, last weekend, over 40,000 Russians across 100 cities protested against the arrest of Navalny upon his return to Moscow. Navalny had flown back from Berlin, where he’d been recovering from the ol’ nerve-agent-in-the-underwear-poisoning trick.

Some reports suggested that these were the largest anti-Kremlin demonstrations in years, resulting in over 3,000 people detained. The protests are extra notable because:

  • 💃🏽 They were organised almost entirely on social media and attracted a huge proportion of Gen Z Russians i.e. Tiktokers – a group that Putin’s never vibed with (ed: we think he’d actually be great at the #RasputinChallenge).

  • 👏 Some analysts suggest they are chipping away at Putin’s passive support - those who are frustrated by the Putin regime but prefer it to the lawlessness of the 90’s that many Russians vividly remember.

  • 🐻 They poked the bear and stirred rare defensive statements from the Russian Government. Putin predictably blamed the West and denied Navalny’s allegations of corruption.

For you Russophiles, Navalny released a documentary last week that he made while recovering in Berlin which details his allegations against Putin and the regime. It’s apparently making waves in Russia with close to 100m views. It’s a worthwhile, if grim, watch.

Navalny vs Putin: greatest hits

I have been fighting corruption, because corruption is the political foundation of this regime.
Alexei Navalny

Who cares about him?
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin

You know Putin really despises an opponent when he won’t refer to them by name.

Navalny accuses Putin of being power-obsessed to amass wealth, and believes Putin’s Russia is a feudal society. Here’s why there is no love lost between the two:

Navalny (politician/resemblance to a fictional character with a license to kill):

  • 🦆 Exposed Russian government corruption via viral films made by his media company, with topics including Putin’s palace and former-PM Medvedev’s thing for ducks.

  • ✊🏽 Led mass protests against Russia’s reportedly rigged parliamentary elections in 2011/2012.

  • 🗳 Tried running against Putin for president in 2018 (a big no-no).

  • 📞 Most recently, tricked FSB (Russian security) agents into revealing how he was poisoned last year, by pretending to be a senior official sent to cover up the aftermath (that the equivalent of a radio DJ’s prank call tricked an intelligence officer is just wild).

Putin (President/has actual license to kill):

  • 💨 Locked up or ‘disappeared’ several of Navalny’s associates after a previous wave of protests swept Russia in 2011/12.

  • 💸 Sentenced Navalny to a five-year jail-term on embezzlement charges in 2013 and for fraud in 2017.

  • 🧪 And last year, allegedly ordered the underpants poisoning to which we referred above, landing Navalny in a month-long coma.

A catch-22 for Putin: to jail or not to jail?

Putin is used to controlling Russian politics, allowing just enough dissent to give the appearance of a democracy. In reality, Putin never lets opposition candidates get close to power, utilising the tools of the state to maintain his grip on power.

But Navalny’s popularity in Russia presents an unusual dilemma for Putin.

If he keeps Navalny locked up, he’ll risk ‘martyring’ the guy and adding fuel to the fire of the recent protests.

But if he lets Navalny walk free, there’s a strong chance Navalny could destabilise his political hold over Russia through more exposés and political activism.

Zoom out

I'm tired of being afraid. I haven't just turned up for myself and Navalny, but for my son because there is no future in this country.
Sergei Radchenko, a 53-year-old protester in Moscow.

Economically, ordinary Russians are doing it tough, while money is no object for Putin’s pet projects like military operations abroad. At the same time, Putin has proposed changes to Russia’s political system that will grant him even tighter control of the country.

Navalny’s popularity exposes this undercurrent of frustrations that many Russians feel at home.

We don’t think Putin is going anywhere anytime soon, but with Navalny’s political platform only growing and global eyes watching, Putin is facing his biggest domestic political challenge yet.

🦘Australia tries to de-FAANG big tech

Upon reflection, de-FAANG looks more like a Dutch surname than a joke about the FAANG companies.

Anyway, Australia is trying to regulate Google and Facebook, and in response, the tech giants are threatening to boot Australia off their platforms:

What's going on down under?

In April 2020, the Australian Government began drafting the News Media Bargaining Code (the Code). According to its logic, Google and Facebook should have to pay the news media companies for the links and snippets of news stories they display in their search results or timelines.

So basically, if someone searches for ‘why is Rupert Murdoch such a bellend?’, Google or Facebook would have to pay us to display a link to International Intrigue. (Actually not really because we're too small to qualify for the Code's protections).

The tycoon who won’t go gently into that good night

Australia still has one of the most concentrated newspaper industries in the world. That means in terms of press freedoms, the company Australia keeps doesn't paint the country in a good light:

News Corp, the media empire of Australia's least favourite export Rupert Murdoch, owns 53.3% of the Australian newspaper market. Oh, and he also owns Fox News. But News Corp is struggling down under:

They’re in a very difficult state [due to the decline in print advertising spending]. You have to question the future of News Corp in Australia in the long term.
- Peter Cox, independent media analyst

Ruthless Rupe, via a compliant government, wants you to believe that News Corp's struggles are all Google and Facebook's fault.

Robbing the rich to pay the… rich

Giving the government a good bollocking is a treasured national past time in Australia. This time they even deserve it!

The Code misdiagnoses the problem it’s trying to solve, by fundamentally misunderstanding the internet. Why should Google and Facebook pay for giving news media companies more traffic?

If you answered: “because big tech companies have built giant businesses on the back of not paying for content", we'd direct you to Facebook's brutal (but clearly accurate) official statement. tl;dr: "Uhhh no, we don't need news to make s***tonnes of money".

Google and Facebook didn't break journalism, the internet did. It reduced marginal costs in the newspaper industry to 0, rendering News Corp's monopolistic control over physical printing presses and delivery trucks obsolete.

So we're sure that it's just a coincidence that Murdoch will be one of the main financial beneficiaries of the Code and not, as Former Prime Ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd (from opposing parties) have suggested, a case of ‘you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours’.

This is complex and difficult issue that goes beyond the scope of our newsletter. But we encourage you to read these excellent, detailed analyses of the code and why it's problematic.

Europe is the pioneer

Australia didn't dream up the Code out of nowhere. In 2019, the EU passed a 'link tax' to enforce tech giants to pay for content they were linking to.

In Spain, Google responded by simply removing news content from searches. Result: news media companies got less traffic; people still used Google. Oops!

Last week in France, Google reached a deal to pay media companies to display links to their content. But France prevented Google from repeating their Spanish shenanigans by legislating that Google must display news media content, and it must pay those media companies for the privilege.

Autocrats of the world, unite!

Other countries are watching and you can bet their respective media tycoons are licking their lips at the prospect of some of that sweet, sweet big tech money too.

But might these countries use the Australian and European examples as cloud cover to enact less 'democratic' media policies? For example:

  • To continue to operate in Nigeria, might Google (which has 98.87% market share) be forced to display the favoured news sites of the ruling party?

  • What about in Azerbaijan (95.86% market share), or Brazil (97.4% market share)?

  • Or what about in Turkey (Google only has 74.41% market share), where the Russian search engine Yandex is also popular (21.03% market share)?

What's stopping President Erdoğan, not a noted advocate of the free press, from introducing a law requiring Google to pay Turkish state media for their content, or leave Turkey, all under guise of 'addressing the imbalance between big tech and media'?

If Google acquiesces, they might be directly funding disinformation. If they refuse, they'd be leaving the search market almost entirely to Moscow-controlled Yandex.

Of course, nothing is stopping Erdogan from doing that right now, but most autocratic leaders are reticent to pick fights without some public justification.

We can just imagine indignant foreign ministers at the UN General Assembly railing that, 'when Australia and Europe bring big tech under control you all cheer, but when we do the same, you sanction us! The hypocrisy!'

The future of a free press isn't dead, unless we kill it

We agree, jumping from a draft Australian law to a ‘Moscow-controlled news and search ecosystem in Turkey’ scenario is quite a big leap. But that's kind of the point, we need to think ten steps ahead.

If you benefit from access to diverse and reliable media and connected global markets, then an open internet breaking the stranglehold of media monopolies has been a good thing.

None of this is to say that all is well. We've already written that big tech needs to have its huge political and economic monopoly power curtailed to prevent the world from splintering further.

But the Australian Code isn’t the right solution. It just transfers power and money from one monopoly to another, all the while demonstrating to the rest of the world exactly how to prop up a favoured media tycoon in the name of 'saving journalism'.

➕ Extra intrigue

Netherlands imposed its first curfew since World War Two to combat the spread of Coronavirus. In response, the country saw its worst night of rioting in 40 years.    

Indian media reported a minor skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops in the Eastern Himalayas, but Chinese-state media said “there was no record of this clash”. So that’s as clear as mud then.

The Flaming Lips might have reinvented live music during a pandemic, performing the ‘world’s first plastic bubble concert’. An innovative but slightly depressing future.

10 years on from the 2011 revolution, President el-Sisi is in clear control of Egypt. It increasingly looks like Egypt just swapped one long-term dictator for another.

🔎 Intriguing recommendations

👩‍🦱 Helen: Our Australia story this week got me thinking of that time a man literally punched a kangaroo to save his dog. We don’t condone it, but now that its happened, we will watch it on loop. Peak ‘straya.

👴 John: I know I wasn’t the only one blown away by 22 year old National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman performance at President Biden’s inauguration. If you can’t get enough of her brilliance, check out her stunning poem called Earthrise. Who’s cutting onions in here?

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P.S. There’s an extra Easter egg for those of you who want to read the hilarious story about the time one of us made a complete ass of himself in front of 1500 people in China. But you’ll have to use your sleuthing skills to discover where it’s posted.