Russia: Social Network In-Between Security Services and Free Market

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.

As social networks in Russia like Vkontakte play an ever increasing role in communication between post-election protesters, so too grows the interest of the security services to limit them. This conflict leads to a hard choice: whether Vkontakte should respond to security service requests, or allow its users uncontrolled protest activity.

Given the previous history of Vkontakte, many believed it would choose to submit itself to the claims of the FSB (Federal Security Service). Vkontakte, however, has decided to choose a different side.

Most popular social network

During the post-election protests (see Global Voices coverage here), many Russian Internet users had to move to Twitter and Facebook, since LiveJournal and other important Russian news portals were heavily DDoS-ed [Distributed Denial of Service attacked].  The one social networking platform that had no significant functionality issues was Vkontakte, the most popular social network in the country.

Vkontakte was founded in 2006 [ru] by Pavel Durov, inspired by Facebook and commonly accused of being a “Facebook clone”; it seems that currently there is no conflict between the two networks though, as recently Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Durov “friended” each other on Facebook. The ownership structure of the Saint Petersburg-based company remains unclear (39.99% owned by London-listed Mail.Ru Group Ltd).

Vkontakte has always had a complicated and questionable reputation; it is one the biggest music and video sharing platforms in Russia. Issues with unrestrained pornography sharing, allegedly [ru] including child pornography, have also been reported.

Another controversy regards Vkontakte's cooperation with the Russian security services. In 2010, the creator of the Mezhdurechensk protest group was summoned [ru] to the FSB, then the group's online presence on Vkontakte was shut down. Vkontakte has also closed several other groups, for example the ‘Anti-religion’ group with nearly 8,000 members in July 2010. In July 2011, after several moderators of protest groups in Belarus were detained, Vkontakte closed a group called ‘Future Movement’, which had over 216,000 members.

Security services against protest groups

Prior to the December 10 post-election protests, over 130 Vkontakte groups were created to organize the simultaneous protests in Russia and the world.

On December 6, members of the most numerous Vkontakte group, ‘Rospil – a war against corruption – Alexey Navalny’ (over 100,000 participants), realized they were not able to post new comments or messages. An administrator of the group ‘Eduard’ (username EDVVVARD) suggested it was due to a request from the security services and asked for help from the founder Pavel Durov on Twitter. Surprisingly he received an immediate response.

Durov wrote [ru]:

The group is restricted due to “Vkontakte” limit of 16,384 posts in 24 hours. Now, we are changing the algorithm for you.

Twenty minutes later the group started to work again. Later Eduard published [ru] this conversation on his blog. Durov wrote:

Everything's OK. Recently the FSB [Federal Security Service] asked us to close opposition groups, like yours. By principle we don't do that. we don't know yet how it will end for us, but we're standing

In response, Eduard asked to publish what Durov said in his blog and Navalny’s group. He argued that it will “disperse the myth about cooperation between Vkontakte and FSB, while the publicity will protect Vkontakte from further FSB’s attacks.”

Durov clarified [ru] that Vkontake was a non-political company which supported neither the government nor the opposition. Durov added that Vkontake blocks and will continue to block only those users who call to physical violence.

Even whilst Durov refused to cooperate, the authorities found their ways to prevent the growth of at least some groups. In Bryansk, user @w3drt46523trc26 reported [tweet deleted] that the FSB approached one of the administrators of its local protest group [ru] and forced them to move the group to the closed mode (the group is now functional again). In Nizhny Novgorod user @allsergeev reported [ru] that their group [ru] was hacked and the event cancelled. In Tver, the police detained [ru] creators of the Tver group, Sergey Shilov and Sergey Osipov.

That wasn’t the end. Later Durov published an official letter [ru] from the Saint Petersburg FSB branch that requested the closure of two events and five groups. Durov not only shared the document but also published what he called an “official response”: a dog with a sweater and his tongue out.

Network turns down FSB request

Durov immediately became a hero of the Russian Internet. Eduard concluded [ru]:

Durov's response to the FSB request. Screen shot 2011-12-14 at 12.47.04

Durov's response to the FSB request. Screen shot 2011-12-14 at 12.47.04

Не надо заставлять Павла Дурова отключать неугодные вам группы. Павел Дуров – профессионал, инноватор и гордость нашей страны. В отличии от вас – жуликов и воров. […]

Хорошие люди объединяются через интернет для добрых дел и порицания зла. Именно этого больше всего на свете вы и боитесь – жулики у власти. Именно поэтому вы блокируете ЖЖ и вводите цензуру в сети. Именно поэтому вы запрещаете митинги и протесты.
Бесполезно. Процесс пошёл и его уже не остановить.

Do not force Pavel Durov to block groups that you don’t like. Pavel Durov is a professional, innovator and the pride for our country, unlike you, crooks and thieves. […]

Good people unify via the Internet to make good deeds and to blame evil. This is what you are most afraid of, you ruling crooks. That’s why you block LiveJournal and impose online censorship. That’s why you prohibit demonstrations and protests. It is useless. The process has started and it can’t be stopped.

Durov started to receive invitations to talk at oppositional rallies. He politely declined them by saying that he was only ready to participate in apolitical flash-mobs.  He received however one more invitation of a different nature. The next day after his “Dog-message” he was summoned [ru] to the St. Petersburg's prosecutor.

Durov never went to the prosecutor. A few days later, however, he published an online letter that some observers believe to be a response to the FSB invitation and an attempt to find a peaceful solution to the issue.

Between Scylla and Charibdis of Facebook and the FSB

On December 12, published this open letter [ru] where he expressed his surprise about the fact that after many years of harsh critique he suddenly became a people’s hero. As a response he decided to explain why he declined the FSB request and made it public against all expectations:

Разговоры о голосованиях, выборах, митингах и гражданской позиции мы считаем формой массового развлечения […] Сначала пользователи столкнулись с проблемами при проведении массовых опросов; затем бурлящие оппозиционные сообщества вошли в ограничение на количество ежедневных комментариев; наконец, интересная нам аудитория обратила внимание на более удобный сервис проведения мероприятий у наших конкурентов. Во всех случаях мы отреагировали модернизацией соответствующего сервиса с задержкой от 15 минут до двух дней.

Те, кто бросились благодарить нас за содействие политическим протестантам, теряют из вида простое обстоятельство. Если бы в те же дни мы стали проигрывать в конкурентной борьбе из-за отсутствия какого-нибудь сервиса виртуальных массовых репрессий, нам бы пришлось ввести и его. И будьте уверены – наши репрессии были бы самыми массовыми и самыми кровавыми на рынке.

We approach discussions about voting, demonstrations and civic position as sort of mass entertainment […] First users were facing problems with conducting public polls, than the buzzing oppositional communities crossed the limited of daily comments, and eventually, our target audience found a more convenient service for conducting events at the competing platform [Facebook]. In all these cases we responded with modernization. It took us from 15 minutes to two days.

Those who rush to thank us for help to political protesters, ignore this important factor. If in these days we would lose the competiotion due to the lack of some service for mass repressions, we would have to launch it. And be sure – our repressions would be the most massive and most bloody on the market.

According to Durov, the FSB request was a significant threat to the capacity of Vkontake to participate competitively in the global market of social networks.  This situaton could lead to a “slow death“ of Russian social networks (as opposed to a “fast death”, like a sudden closure of a social network by the security services). His goal was to preserve fair competition rules, and attract attention to the local FSB requests. By Durov's reckoning, if Russia wanted to protect its own Internet industry, requests to block oppositional content should not be acceptable.

In Homer's famous legend, Odysseus tries to steer his ship between two sea monsters: Scylla and Charybdis. If he goes closer to Charybdis, he will lose the entire ship. The price of going closer to Scylla is also horrible, but acceptable: in this case he will lose only six members of his crew. Vkontakte had to choose between obeying the FSB and pushing its users to Facebook or rejecting the FSB's request. In this case, Vkontakte decided that Facebook is Charybdis and FSB is Scylla, as it is better to be summoned to the prosecutor than to lose thousands of users migrating to Facebook.

How to reconcile business and censorship

Aside from sending a clear message “we can still cooperate” to the FSB, Durov's letter can also give a hint to the security services on where the censorship could be possible, according to the market rules. Durov wrote:

Пока они применяют разные стандарты к разным видам цензуры, наша позиция остается неизменной и сводится к одному утверждению: бессмысленно удалять с одного интернет-сайта то, что можно быстро найти на других.

While they apply different standards towards various types of censorship, our position can be concluded with one statement: it is meaningless to remove something from one website if you can find it promptly on other websites.

In other words, if Russian users can’t find opportunities to express their independent political opinions on other web platforms, then Vkontakte might satisfy the FSB's requirements.

The letter also contains a direction to an even more concerning scenario. If protests and a struggle for freedom is not different form a game like “Angry Birds” or watching pornography and it all can be measured within the same perspective of profitability, how far can companies go to satisfy the consumer and win the competition over the audience?

Science fiction brings at least a couple of dystopian examples of violence or even murder used as a tool for even more entertainment. History, however, proves that it's not only science fiction. There are many examples when entertainment crossed any ethical limits, and was used as a way to satisfy and control ‘the crowd.’ For example, ancient Rome with its “Bread and games” (Panem et circenses) in the Colosseum and other arenas. Even when there were no gladiator fights, public executions were an important factor of both social control and entertainment for hundreds of years. Even today, the same logic is used by terrorist organizations that distribute execution movies online (one can also mention some governments doing that).

If the Russian government gets Durov's message that any type of entertainment that brings profit can work, it can possibly adopt the entertainment to its own needs. If a social network will do everything to entertain audience, given it doesn't break the law, we shouldn't be surprised to witness new forms of state-sponsored or state-inspired online entertainment and the emergence of a new networked Colosseum. The same tactic was used in the case of Russian television, when the significant element of the control policy was not censorship alone, but sponsoring popular yet shallow reality shows and dramatic programmes about crime, to distract viewers from the real issues.

It looks like Vkontakte will be happy to satisfy simultaneously both the state and the public. From the business perspective it's all a question of demand and supply. In this case, the networked repressions from Vkontakte might be indeed, the most massive and the most bloody on the market.

This post is part of our special coverage Russia Elections 2011.



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