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Search engines and browsers limit Russian disinformation websites and state-backed media in search results, as well as advertising. These limitations are intended to curb propaganda and conspiracy theories, though some have drawn the ire of free speech absolutists.

One of the first search engines to act was Bing. Head quarter Microsoft announced on February 28, Bing would downgrade Russian state-controlled news sites RT and Sputnik so that links only appear in search when “a user clearly intends to navigate to those pages.” Microsoft has also banned news organizations from placing ads on its advertising network.

Microsoft President and Vice President Brad Smith said in a blog post that the company “will make ongoing adjustments to strengthen our detection and disruption mechanisms to prevent the spread of misinformation and instead promote independent and reliable content”.

On March 3, Google suspended ad sales in Russia as part of a ban covering search results and YouTube. The decision follows earlier restrictions in which Google banned certain Russian channels, including RT, from receiving advertising revenue on its websites on Feb. 26.

As required by European Union sanctions, Google removed RT and Sputnik from its EU search results on March 9. Google didn’t do the same for the United States or other countries. Google said in an email to Protocol that its approach was not to downgrade individual sites, pointing to a blog post that said the search engine “basically designs our ranking systems to identify what information people are likely to find useful and reliable”.

Privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo on March 10 announced that it would downgrade websites associated with Russian disinformation, including RT and Sputnik. For newsworthy topics, DuckDuckGo will also highlight reputable media coverage and reliable “instant answers” at the top of its search results, the company said in an email to Protocol. The move follows DuckDuckGo’s termination of its partnership with Russian search engine Yandex on March 1.

The company said in a statement to Protocol that “downgrading is different from censorship” and that it uses disinformation from Russian-controlled websites to report that the content produced is substandard, similar to how the search engine would work for “spam sites”.

“The primary purpose of a search engine is to provide access to accurate information,” DuckDuckGo said in a statement to Protocol. “Disinformation sites that deliberately spread false information to intentionally mislead people cut directly against this utility.”

But DuckDuckGo users apparently aren’t happy with the move. An announcement of these changes tweeted Wednesday by DuckDuckGo founder and CEO Gabriel Weinberg elicited thousands of responses. One user tweeted:This just ruined everything for me.” Another replied:Let US decide what to believe.

Many users responded that they would upgrade to Brave, a self-proclaimed 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 protocol request for comment.

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