Kremlin penetrates deeper into online world of Russians

The takeover last week of VKontakte, Russia’s largest homegrown social media platform, by companies tied to state-run gas giant Gazprom has the feel of a final act in a long saga of creeping state control over the company.

In this, the Facebook lookalike’s trajectory has mirrored that of the Russian internet as a whole — from the freewheeling Ru-net of the 2000s to what is increasingly being dubbed sovereign-net by local media today — as the Kremlin secures ever more control.

Founded by programmer Pavel Durov in St Petersburg in 2006, VKontakte was a maverick start-up that did not shy away from confrontation with the state when it demanded that accounts tied to the political opposition be suppressed.

But the mass protests that rocked Moscow in 2012, often co-ordinated on social media, set the Kremlin’s sights on a crackdown — and VKontakte on a collision course. Durov left the country in 2014 after claiming he had been forced to sell his stake to pro-Kremlin investors., which bought the 48 per cent stake, repeatedly denied that it was working on behalf of the Kremlin.

Subsumed into the sprawling holdings of tycoon Alisher Usmanov, VKontakte began sharing user data with law enforcement (as legally required) and “adjusted itself to the Kremlin’s agenda”, said digital rights lawyer Sarkis Darbinyan.

Now, critics say, indirect influence has morphed into direct ownership. Usmanov last week sold his group’s shares in VKontakte’s parent company, VK, formerly known as, to insurance company Sogaz and to the Gazprom-Media holding, both affiliates of state-run Gazprom. The two will share a controlling stake.

Boris Dobrodeev, VK’s chief executive, stepped down. His successor is likely to be Vladimir Kiriyenko, a top executive at Russian state telecoms group Rostelecom and the son of President Vladimir Putin’s deputy chief of staff, Russian media outlets RBC and The Bell cited sources as saying.

“Close co-operation between the company and state agencies is only going to increase,” said Darbinyan, a co-founder of internet freedom group Roskomsvoboda. He added that he left the social media platform about five years ago, performing what he called his “digital hara-kiri” when the first signs of state influence appeared.

Many Russians have turned to foreign social media platforms in recent years. Though VKontakte remains hugely popular, with about 71m monthly users in Russia, according to the Mediascope monitor, it has been outpaced by YouTube, with 79m. The use of Facebook and WhatsApp has also boomed — a bugbear for the Kremlin, which sees the role of western tech giants as a threat.

Promoting VKontakte under the Gazprom umbrella could be a useful way to drive Russian users back to domestic platforms, said Alena Epifanova, of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“The long-term goal is to push out the foreign social media companies from the Russian market,” Epifanova said. “VKontakte is supposed to replace Facebook.”

Through a string of court cases and fines, the Kremlin has piled the pressure on western tech firms, demanding that they comply with local data and content laws.

“Honestly, I think YouTube has six months left in Russia,” said Andrei Soldatov, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and co-author of The Red Web. “Next year, we will move to the stage of banning global platforms.”

Gazprom-Media said it was interested in acquiring a stake in VK as it saw natural business synergies. “VK combines the country’s leading social networks with a multimillion audience and traffic, while Gazprom-Media Holding is the country’s largest producer of popular and in-demand content,” it said.

With VKontakte and the other companies in the VK network, Gazprom-Media, one of the largest media holdings in Russia, now controls a vast swath of Russians’ online world, in addition to its TV channels, radio stations, printed press and film production. “A centralisation is taking place,” said Soldatov. “Corporations are being turned into ministries.”

Gazprom-Media declined to comment on whether its acquisition of a stake in VK increased government influence over the social media site.

German Klimenko, a former adviser to Putin on internet issues, said the choice of Gazprom-linked companies as buyers was purely a business move. “I don’t see a political element . . . The costs of such deals are high, and there are very few players able to buy.”

The move did not bring the state deeper into the social network, Klimenko said — as it was already there. “[VK] is a Russian company, it complies fully with the law and with all demands that come its way,” Klimenko said. “There is currently no need, in Russia, to buy internet companies in order to control them or receive something from them. Say you wanted people to stop using swear words in VKontakte, you would just need to pass a law.”

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