Does the Kremlin now control the Facebook of Russia?

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Marco Werman: And speaking of Putin and Russia, here's an interesting sidenote to the crisis in Ukraine: Bloomberg reports that the Kremlin may have used a social media network to monitor Ukrainian activists during the crisis there. Not Facebook, but Russia's equivalent of Facebook, Vkontakte, or VK. Mark Milian is the Global Tech editor for Bloomberg News. He says Vkontakte is popular not just in Russia but in neighboring nations as well, like Ukraine. Mark Milian: In Russia and other countries whose languages are more compatible with Russian, this is like the network to be on. Werman: In terms of numbers, how popular is it in Russia? Milian: There's at least 240 million people who are on this network. It pales in comparison to Facebook's 1 billion plus globally, but yes, this is like the Russian website that just about everybody who's on the internet has a profile and connects and messages on. Werman: Tell me a bit about Pavel Durov, the founder of Vkontakte. If Vkontakte is the Facebook of Russia, does that make Pavel Durov the Mark Zuckerberg of Russia, does he enjoy the same celebrity? Milian: He does actually. He's a down home celebrity in his own country. There are many parallels like Zuckerberg. He started when he was very young, he's kind of this unusual, almost elusive character in the internet scene in Russia. I've met him a couple of times. He's a huge movie buff, one of his favorite movies is "The Matrix" and he's even kind of aped the Matrix style in the way that he dresses, in like a black trenchcoat turtleneck type thing. Werman: You said he's reclusive, he's actually been pushed out of the company, I understand, and left Russia. Can you tell us why he left? Milian: Yeah, he's a libertarian in a country where that's not the most socially accepted way of life and he's butted heads with some of his investors who have connections to the Kremlin. They have essentially pushed him out of the CEO role. Werman: Back to the possibility that Vkontakte has been used or may be used by the Kremlin to monitor protesters in Ukraine, what is the story on that? Is that for real? Milian: It seems to be that they're trying to find a way to sort of get access to this information. This has really been a huge concern within Russia, that folks with ties to Putin, like Alisher Usmanov, who's the lead investor in VK, that they're sort of just in the pockets of the government and that all their information is going to be handed right over to the Kremlin. Werman: What's the likelihood that the Kremlin would ask Vkontakte to hand over information on its users? Milian: I think we'll just have to wait and see. It's entirely possible that they'll want access to this treasure trove of information that's happening on this social network in the same way that the NSA and other governments put in a request to Facebook. The same sorts of information exists on VK and as the Russian government comes under pressure for economic reasons, for geopolitical reasons, they'll want to do the same sort of monitoring that many other of the superpowers are doing. Werman: With Pavel Durov gone, what do you think the future holds for Vkontakte? Is it healthy enough that it's kind of on autopilot now? Milian: I think to an extent, it's a pretty developed network. It's been around since 2006, that was just a couple years after Facebook was founded. It's got an extremely strong base within Russia. On the flip side, any time a founder leaves a company, and this is almost a known quantity within Silicon Valley, that the founder has the vision and they have the power to rally the troops and execute within the company. So without that, bringing in just a couple of billionaires who made their money in completely different industries, I think that's a sign that there could be some stagnation at VK. They're not without their own pressures. They were just sued a couple of weeks ago by the major music labels based in the US who say that "This is just a hotbed of piracy and you're not really doing a whole lot to fix it." Werman: Mark Milian, editor of Global Tech for Bloomberg News, thanks so much. Milian: Thanks.