Technology success story Canva is still operating in Russia, making it the only Australian company to earn the lowest grade, “digging in” on a tracker run by US university Yale and outraging Ukrainians in Australia.
The company, which claims to have more than 60 million active users and is worth at least $37bn, continues to allow Russians to use the free version of its product, an online clip art and layout service.
Uvi Levitski, a software engineer who is part of an informal group of Ukrainian expatriates who have been monitoring the activities of Australian companies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said Canva’s actions were “inconsistent with what we believe an ethical company’s response should have been”.
He said some members of the Ukrainian community were considering protesting outside Canva’s offices in the inner-Sydney suburb of Surry Hills.
“The Australian Ukrainian diaspora is understandably appalled by Canva’s unprincipled position and the lack of action,” he said.
A Russian engagement tracker run by the Chief Executive Leadership Institute at Yale University’s school of management includes six Australian companies – Canva, Atlassian, Viva Energy, law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, Qantas, and Rio Tinto.
Canva is the only one of the six to draw the “digging in” grade because it is “still providing services to Russia”. The other companies have been labeled either “suspension” or withdrawal”, having either stopped serving the Russian market for the time being or pulled out entirely.
Canva’s head of communications, Lachlan Andrews, said the company suspended payments to and from Russia on 1 March.
“The free version of Canva remains available in Russia along with a prominent banner displaying our opposition to the war and directing users to our pro-peace and anti-war templates,” he said.
He said that the company also included “prominent” banners in its product “highlighting the illegal war in Ukraine” – an approach that he said was likely to result in Canva being banned in Russia.
“However, until then, we believe we have an important responsibility to use our reach, particularly with our 1.4 million users in Russia, to promote truth and accurate information,” he said.
Levitski also criticized as “weakly worded” a 4 March blog post titled “Supporting Ukraine and Promoting Peace”, in which one of Canva’s founders, Cliff Obrecht, promised the company would donate $1m “to those impacted by this crisis”.
While the post refers to an “unlawful and reckless act of aggression”, it does not use the word “invasion.” The term “war” appears only in a sample layout template that Obrecht said Canva was offering for free to “amplify the important call for peace while bringing additional awareness to the tragic situation continuing to unfold”.
“We’re also thinking of our Russian community, many of whom are incredibly hurt, upset, and have had no choice in the tragic events unfolding,” Obrecht said in the post.
Levitski said that polling in Russia showed the vast majority of the population supported the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
“It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that, in the absence of any moderation of private content, the amount of pro-war material made using Canva by users in Russia will similarly outweigh anti-war material, thus disproportionally benefiting the already all-powerful Kremlin propaganda machine,” he said.
“And that’s even ignoring that public opposition to the war has been effectively criminalized and is punishable with up to 15 years of imprisonment.”
Following inquiries from Guardian Australia, Canva added an update to the blog post on Tuesday, stating that the company is “strongly opposed to the ongoing war in Ukraine and strongly condemn Russia’s continued and illegal acts of aggression”.
Canva’s Andrews said the company had “several mechanisms in place to prevent Canva from being used for the wrong reason, including proactive content moderation”.
“While we haven’t seen any evidence of Canva being used for the wrong reasons, accounts found to be doing so will be immediately blocked,” he said.