Tech giant Google has cut off a sanctioned Russian propaganda website from popular tools that allowed the site to track and collect extensive data on the site’s readers.
The website, USA Really, has been barred from using Google Analytics, the company told The Daily Beast last week, depriving the site of reporting data on readers’ countries of origin, time of visit, pages visited, referring websites, IP addresses, and types of operating systems. The information is typically used for search engine optimization and marketing purposes.
It’s the latest setback for USA Really, which has seen multiple other tech firms cut ties with the site after its parent company, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN), was hit with U.S. sanctions in December. Federal authorities accuse FAN of complicity in a widespread, Kremlin-backed disinformation campaign dubbed “Project Lakhta.”
Through USA Really, the Treasury Department wrote in a statement on the sanctions, FAN “engaged in efforts to post content focused on divisive political issues.” But the site, it added, “is generally riddled with inaccuracies.”
Treasury’s sanctions bar Americans from “engaging in business dealings” with either FAN or Alexander Malkevich, USA Really’s founder and a media policy adviser to the Russian government. According to OFAC guidelines, that could potentially subject any U.S. persons to “substantial” penalties if they continue doing business with USA Really, FAN, or Malkevich.
The sanctions have already stunted other aspects of USA Really’s operations. Google’s revocation of USA Really’s analytics access comes shortly after the popular online payment processor PayPal also shuttered the site’s account. The site has also gone through three different web security certificates, which make websites easier to access on most internet browsers, after two U.S.-based certificate providers cut ties with the site due to federal sanctions.
The sanctions have also thrown a wrench into a FAN lawsuit against another tech giant, Facebook, over its closure of USA Really’s pages on that platform, part of a long-running effort to rid Facebook of malicious foreign propaganda efforts.
The lawsuit alleges that Facebook violated its First Amendment rights by taking down those pages (Facebook is a private company and hence is not bound by the First Amendment). The lawsuit also accuses Facebook of violating the Civil Rights Act, alleging it censored USA Really on the basis of nationality, a protected category.
Both parties agreed on Tuesday to postpone a conference later this month to update a federal judge on the status of the lawsuit. Treasury’s sanctions against FAN require its attorneys—with the U.S. law firms Diamond McCarthy and Whiteford, Taylor & Preston—to obtain a specific license from the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to continue their representation.
Facebook is expected to move to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed in a federal court in California in November. But the imposition of sanctions the following month means further developments in the case may be postponed further. FAN’s attorneys said they expected to hear back from OFAC in the next 30 to 60 days.
Sanctions against FAN also have USA Really’s American contributors reconsidering their own involvement, given the possibility that any payments for their writing might run afoul of prohibitions on business dealings with the site.
“Our authors continue to cooperate with us,” Malkevich told The Daily Beast. “They write about their thoughts, about the problems of American society.”
Phil Butler, an American political analyst and author of Putin’s Praetorians: Confessions of the Top Kremlin Trolls, was an early contributor to the site. In an e-mail, Butler called the sanctions “ludicrous,” since, he said, “the audience of the outlet is not large enough or broad enough to make any difference whatsoever.” But he added that he doesn’t intend to defy the sanctions.
“If me and other Americans are barred from working as journalists for any media outlet, it is obviously in our best interest to comply,” Butler said. “I am, however, concerned about the precedent this sets, since so many independent journalists and experts express their opinions on thousands of media outlets.”
He’s not alone. Ronald Thomas West, a self-described “former Special Forces Sergeant of Operations and Intelligence” and a USA Really essay contest entrant, also recently announced his withdrawal from the site.
“I request any prize money won be donated to a Russian charity, and as a war veteran, I would suggest to the orphans of Russian casualties in Syria,” West wrote in an open letter published on his personal site in December. “I can no longer suggest a USA charity on account of the legal and/or public relations problems this might bring to otherwise deserving people in today’s irrational USA political climate.”
Not all USA Really contributors, though, are prepared to acquiesce.
Jeffrey K. Silverman, a Tbilisi, Georgia-based U.S. Army veteran who previously worked for Radio Free Europe, has written over 30 articles for USA Really on topics as varied as the BDS movement and the tobacco industry. In an e-mail, Silverman said that he continues to write for the site on a paid basis despite the sanctions.
"I don't know how they could legally apply to a US citizen, as the 1st Amendment still applies,” Silverman said. "I continue to cooperate [with USA Really], and with greater enthusiasm. I don't like being told as a US citizen that I am subject to 1984 and USSR-styled censorship."
It remains unclear how many of USA Really's American contributors intend to continue working for the site. But according to the site’s ongoing documentary video series, recent hires include a United Nations news correspondent based in New York City, and a former NBC News/CBS News media reporter based in Washington, D.C. Neither replied to requests for comment.
Back in Russia, USA Really’s embattled founder has been doing his best to paint himself and his site as victims of U.S. aggression and maintains that all accusations about him and his site are part of a McCarthyite blacklisting campaign. Asked about the future of USA Really, he said he is currently exploring ways to navigate the new sanctions while waiting for federal authorities to confirm whether or not he has the right to continue operating in the United States. .
“WHY I HAVE THE RIGHT TO RUN MY SITE??????????????,” he replied when asked to elaborate. “1. IT IS MY OWN PROJECT 2. I REALLY LOVE TO WRITE 3. US DIDN'T SUGGEST ME ANYTHING ONLY SANCTIONS NO COMMUNICATION NO LETTERS NO ANSWERS TO MY QUESTIONS NO COOPERATION.
“I AM REALLY UPSET BECAUSE OF ALL THESE THINGS,” he added. “AND NOW YOU WANT TO CONSRUCT [sic] SOME THEORY OF PLOT AGAINST US?
“WITCH HUNT 2019? ALL ANERICANS [sic] CAN WRITE ANYTHING FOR US.”