Google removes ‘Russia won the White House for you, Donald Trump’ billboard in censorship row

A project by campaigning organization "Reporters Without Borders" that put messages criticizing world leaders on billboards that appeared on Google Street View has had the images removed by the tech company.

Earlier this week, people browsing Moscow's Red Square via Street View on maps.google.se would have seen a huge black-and-white billboard right next to St Basil's Cathedral stating: "Being gay is normal."

The quote is from an interview with a school teacher who stated "homosexuality is normal" in Russian newspaper Molodai Dalnevostochnik. Editor Alexander Suturin was fined by Russia's Federal Mass Media Inspection Service for breaking a law that bans "gay propaganda" among minors.

The billboard wasn't there in real life, however. The posters are by the Swedish arm of Reporters Without Borders, which digitally altered Street View in cities around the world. It worked with agency Akestam Holst on the campaign, which promotes freedom of speech.

Now, they have been taken down by Google in a move that Jonathan Lundqvist, president of Reporters Without Borders Sweden, said amounts to censorship.

"We find it ironic that a campaign on free speech has been silenced so quickly. And we have officially received information that the campaign has been shut down because it violates Google Map's policies," he wrote in an email to CNBC on Thursday.

"That's the thing about censorship, it doesn't call itself censorship, or may even not be intended as one. But the consequences remain the same, important voices for free speech have been silenced in the places where they are needed the most."

Another huge poster "appeared" on Broadway, right by Times Square in New York City, stating "Russia won the White House for you, Donald Trump," taken from a statement on Twitter from writer Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza, who was blocked by the president after she tweeted a message at him. She was then part of a group that filed a lawsuit against the president for the block.

The posters were intended to combat censorship, Reporters Without Borders said. "By altering billboards in Google Street View we gained access to locations where people could never say certain things in real life without facing consequences, far beyond both borders and censorship," the organization stated on its Billboards Beyond Borders website.

"To fight government censorship, we put silenced words on the map again," it stated in an online video.

Another poster, in Istanbul, called Turkey's President Erdogan "a megalomaniac dictator." It had the subhead: "Wrote Ebru Umar and got arrested and blocked from leaving Turkey." Umar was arrested in 2016 after she criticized the president in a newspaper column. The poster, along with the others, has been removed from Google Street View.

Reporters Without Borders Sweden said it downloaded 360 spheres in Google Street View, altered them in Photoshop and re-uploaded them.

But creating such content goes against Google Maps' policy, which states: "Contributions must be based on real experiences and information. Deliberately fake content, copied or stolen photos, off-topic reviews, defamatory language, personal attacks, and unnecessary or incorrect content are all in violation of our policy. If you see this behavior, please report it."

Google was not immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC about the accusations of censorship.