Russia’s new state-sponsored Internet search engine is now in beta testing, and users are finding that it produces some curious results. Sputnik.ru, the Kremlin’s answer to foreign sites like Google and independent engines such as Yandex, realizes a long-held ambition of many in the Russian government to control the way people browse the Internet.
According to Ilya Ponomarev, one of only two opposition deputies in the Russian parliament, the idea of a state-controlled search engine was born during the 2008 military conflict with Georgia, when hardliners determined that existing Web portals favor news and information that is biased against Russia’s geopolitical interests. Anton Nosik, a founder of Russia’s Internet and another prominent oppositionist, has speculated that Rostelecom, the state-controlled telephony company charged with developing Sputnik.ru, is merely looking to fleece the budget for as much as 60 million dollars. Rostelecom’s Vice President, Alexey Basov, on the other hand, insists that Sputnik.ru isn’t costing taxpayers a kopeck, claiming that the company is investing only its own corporate funds.
After Sputnik.ru went live for beta-testing today in Russia (the site remains inaccessible to foreign IP addresses), Basov was clearly in high spirits, telling reporters gathered at this year’s St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that the site would be unlike existing search engines. Sputnik.ru apparently utilizes “special mathematical algorithms” that enhance its filtration of unwholesome content. “It’s important to us,” Basov explained, “that Internet searches for ‘schoolgirl’ find girls in nice dresses and white aprons [traditional school uniforms for women in Russia], and not something else.”
Sputnik.ru’s special algorithms seem not to have understood their mission. No sooner than Basov announced the website’s moral superiority did Russian bloggers begin posting screen captures of search queries conducted using Sputnik.ru, showing how the site in fact returns all manner of erotic and even pornographic results. This is true even when searching for “schoolgirl,” despite Basov’s promise to journalists today. To make matters worse for Rostelecom, it appears that Yandex actually filters nudity and sexual materials more effectively than Sputnik.ru.
For now, Sputnik.ru’s official aims are to integrate with the state’s e-government programs, offering citizens a better way to find public services. There is also talk that the website will be made the default search engine on all government computers. The project is part of a broader push for more “digital sovereignty” in Russia. The website’s very name, “Sputnik,” means “satellite,” and is a nod to the Soviet Union’s greatest scientific achievement.
In a recent interview with Forbes Russia, Konstantin Malofeyev, a prominent Orthodox business and political leader, discussed the need to wrestle control of the Internet away from the United States. According to Malofeyev, who was instrumental in developing Russia’s original blacklist for illegal online content, America must understand that it does not own the Web. He even compared the invention of the Internet, which is often attributed to the US Defense Department, to the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite, which began the Space Age. “Russians opened outer space,” Malofeyev boasted, “but there’s no Soviet or Russian law on outer space that everyone must observe.”
Russia’s conservative patriots have a point. Sputnik is history and Russia’s monopoly on space exploration was short-lived, but now there is Sputnik.ru. And it has schoolgirls.