Science, Tech & Environment

Does the Kremlin now control the Facebook of Russia?

RTXZZ7B.jpg

Credit:

REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

A man looks at a computer screen showing logos of Russian social network VKontakte in an office in Moscow May 24, 2013. The founder of Russia's social media giant, Pavel Durov, has been pushed out of the company.

In Moscow, you don't update your status on Facebook, you update on Vkontakte. It's the dominant social network in Russia.

Player utilities

(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Mark Milian, the Global Tech editor for Bloomberg News, says around 240 million people use the network. And while that pales in comparison to Facebook's 1 billion global users, just about everyone on the Internet in Russia has a profile on Vkontakte and uses it to send messages and connect with people.

So if it's the Facebook of Russia, does that make it's founder, Pavel Durov, the Mark Zuckerberg of Russia?

Milian says yes. Durov is a tech celebrity in the country. "He's kind of this unusual, almost elusive character in the Internet scene in Russia," he says. "I've met him a couple times. He's a huge movie buff. One of his favorite movies is The Matrix."

And, apparently, this love of The Matrix extends to Durov's style. He wears a black trench coat and black turtlenecks. Neocore, if you will.

Recently, Durov butted heads with some of his investors and those investors had ties to the Kremlin. They had the power and financial backing to push him out of his CEO role, says Milian. Durov has now left the country and is flying around the world, spending time in Barcelona, San Francisco, and Berlin, where he's involved with a new tech venture.

Durov says he left Russia because he feared prosecution, according to The Moscow Times. He indicated that he was under pressure to give officials personal information about users and to delete accounts of government critics.

With Durov gone, there's some fear among Vkontakte users that all their data will be handed over to the Kremlin. Bloomberg reported last week that the Kremlin had sought information on Ukrainian protesters. So their fear is not without merit.

"This has been a huge concern within Russia," says Milian.

But how likely is it? Milian says we need to wait and see. He adds that it’s not all that different from the relationship the National Security Agency has with Facebook. The government agency is constantly requesting information. And Russia will likely want to do the same with Vkontakte.

So with the founder of Vkontakte gone, who might stand in the way of divulging personal information?

That would be Alisher Usmanov. He is Russia's wealthiest man, an oligarch, and is now in control of Vkontakte. And while he's far from a Mark Zuckerberg, he is a friend of President Vladimir Putin. It's just not clear how he'll use that relationship.

Comments