Internet censorship in Russia is threatening the country’s economic and political freedom, and the threat is spilling over into Ukraine.
Pavel Durov, founder and CEO of the popular Russian social network VKontakte, has been fired from his job and has fled Russia rather than submit to pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government to hand over the private data of Ukrainian “Euromaidan” activists.
Started by Durov in 2006, VKontakte is the second most popular social network in Europe, with more than 239 million accounts. Its interface is very similar to Facebook—from design up to functionalities such as a user page, news feed, and “liking” and “sharing” posts. But VKontakte offers more multimedia content for users, such as music and movies online, for which it has been accused of copyright infringement.
In January 2014, Durov posted on his VKontakte personal page news that he had sold his remaining 12 percent stake in the company. At the time he did not cite any reason for the sale and still remained as CEO of VKontakte. However, in mid-April, Durov published a formal request from the Russian Federal Security Service (known as the FSB) that he had received in December 2013. The FSB asked him to provide the personal data of 39 Euromaidan-related online communities in his social network.
The Euromaidan protests in Ukraine beginning in late 2013, which eventually led to the collapse of the pro-Putin government, spawned numerous forums and communities in social media. Euromaidan activists used VKontakte—the most popular social networking site in Ukraine—to post news and coordinate their activities. The most visited Euromaidan-related page has more than 500,000 subscribers and was specifically mentioned in the FSB letter.
Even before the Euromaidan phenomenon emerged, Durov reports that the FSB demanded VKontakte block the page of Russian opposition politician and anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny. Durov refused to comply with any of the FSB requests. Instead, he sold his shares in the company. When the board fired him from his CEO position last month, Durov finally fled the country, and management of VKontakte was taken over by two Russian oligarchs, Alisher Usmanov and Igor Sechin.
News of Durov’s departure from Russia and the fate of VKontakte come at a time when opposition websites are being banned by the Russian government. Freedom House ranked Russia 176th (out of 197 countries) in its 2014 global press freedom rankings.
Sechin, a close ally of Putin, is one of the individuals on whom the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions due to Russian occupation of Crimea and violent insurgent movements linked to Russia. News of the sanctioning pleased Durov: “Just learned that the U.S. levied sanctions against Igor Sechin, a former KGB agent whose current hobby is to destroy great Russian companies like Yukos and VKontakte. Well done,” posted Durov, now starting his next business project in Central Europe. Ironically, Durov’s posting appeared on his Facebook page.