Google pulls Russia Today, Sputnik from Play Store as EU ban looms

Google has followed Apple’s lead and removed the apps of Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik from its mobile app store, Play, per Reuters.

The two Kremlin-linked media outlets were sanctioned in the European Union following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Google had previously banned the RT News app in Ukraine at the request of the government in Kyiv.

A Google spokesperson told us the block is limited to “Europe.”

In a statement, Google said:

“Consistent with the work we’ve described to reduce recommendations, pause monetization, and limit the reach of Russian state-funded media, mobile apps for Russian news channels RT and Sputnik are no longer available on the Play Store across Europe. Our teams continue to monitor the situation around the clock to take swift action.”

Google confirmed the apps are being blocked in all EU countries and in the U.K., Ukraine, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

The Android versions of the news apps had been downloaded millions of times worldwide. According to data from Apptopia, RT News had 7.5 million global installs to date — much larger than its iOS footprint of just 2.5 million. Sputnik News had 2.89 million global downloads, also a larger figure than the app’s 960,000 iOS installs. Another firm, Sensor Tower’s, figures weren’t quite as high — they saw RT News with 4.1 million global installs and Sputnik News with 1.5 million.

Over the past seven days, RT News had grown by 66,000 Google Play installs,  up 346% from 14.8K in the seven days before that. Meanwhile, Sputnik had grown by 15,000 Google Play installs,  up 257% from 4.2K in the prior seven days, Sensor Tower noted.

As we reported earlier, the EU’s legal ban on RT and Sputnik will cover all distribution channels, including online platforms — providing a hard deadline for platform giants to act against RT, Sputnik and their subsidiaries.

Some individual EU Member States have previously banned RT broadcasts in their own territories, such as Germany, which banned the German-language version of the Russian state broadcaster earlier this month — but the incoming pan-EU sanction means there will shortly be a far more extensive blanket ban across the region.

Yesterday, ahead of the EU’s sanction coming into force, Google announced blocks on the YouTube channels of RT and Sputnik.

However, in that case, it is only geoblocking access to their YouTube channels in the EU, where the legal sanction will apply, rather than suspending their accounts globally.

Google has therefore faced some criticism for only implementing a partial block on Russian propaganda.

Google has also appeared a little slower to react to the Ukraine crisis compared to some other platforms.

Apple confirmed yesterday it will remove the RT and Sputnik News apps from its iOS App Store in all markets outside Russia itself.

Microsoft, meanwhile, had also already banned RT from its Windows app store and de-ranked both news sources in its search engine Bing — announcing a package of measures Monday.

Other tech firms have also scrambled to put out restrictions on Russian state-affiliated media in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine, with Twitter expanding its labeling policy to flag tweets that contain links to the media outlets’ content earlier this week, as well as reducing the visibility of the content itself.

Twitter has faced some criticism from European leaders for not blocking the accounts themselves. But the company told Reuters yesterday that it will comply with the EU’s sanction when it comes into effect, adding: “The European Union sanctions will likely legally require us to withhold certain content in EU member states.”

In further limited measures announced earlier this week, Facebook said it’s now geoblocking RT and Sputnik in the EU, as did TikTok.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last Thursday, political leaders in Europe and Commission lawmakers have been applying high-level pressure to mainstream tech platforms to do more to tackle what the bloc’s president described Sunday as Russia’s “toxic media machine” — trailing what she also couched as “unprecedented” sanctions on RT and Sputnik.

The Commission’s assessment is that the two Kremlin-linked media entities are a key strategic piece of Putin’s war machinery.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to include comments from Google.