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Russia's Top Social Network Under Fire

VKontakte's brief blacklisting was just the latest in a series of incidents that have befallen the social network in recent months.
VKontakte's brief blacklisting was just the latest in a series of incidents that have befallen the social network in recent months.
MOSCOW -- When briefly appeared on a government blacklist of banned websites last week, it raised eyebrows.

Russia's leading social network isn’t just a place where friends connect, make plans, and share experiences. It’s also one of the main platforms the opposition has used to organize its activities across the country’s far-flung regions.

The State Telecom Regulator said VKontakte was placed on the blacklist, which is designed to root out sites that illegally promote child pornography, “by accident” and the that site was soon back online.

But Oleg Kozyrev, a media analyst and opposition blogger, suggests that the "accidental" blocklisting had a purpose.

"I would call what is happening at the moment a lesson, in the bad sense," Kozyrev says. "It's an attempt to teach the Russian online community to be more compliant, less independent, and more deferential."

Kozyrev and other online activists have long suggested that the blacklist law, ostensibly designed to protect children, can easily be abused to harass and ultimately shut down any website that is problematic to the authorities.

Moreover, VKontakte's brief blacklisting was just the latest in a series of incidents that have befallen the social network in recent months. Some observers say VKontakte is facing a targeted campaign to rein in the social network and clip the wings of its maverick CEO.

Founder Has Fled

VKontakte was founded in 2006 by Pavel Durov, a 28-year-old St. Petersburg native. Durov, who has been compared to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, built the network into an online powerhouse that attracts 47 million users daily.

The Vkontakte page of founder Pavel Durov
The Vkontakte page of founder Pavel Durov
Shortly after mass anti-Kremlin protests broke out in the wake of the disputed December 2011 elections to the State Duma, Durov refused to comply with a request from the Federal Security Service (FSB) to block opposition groups from using the site. There appeared to be no immediate repercussions.

In April, Durov was accused of hitting a traffic policeman with his car and a video of the alleged incident appeared online.

On April 16, VKontakte's main offices in downtown St. Petersburg were searched by police. Durov -- who denies even owning a car -- fled the country and has not been seen in public since.

'Atmosphere Of Danger'

The day after VKontakte's offices were searched, the private equity firm United Capital Partners (UCP), which has close ties to the Kremlin, bought a 48 percent stake in the company from Durov's two founding partners, Vyacheslav Mirilashvily and Lev Leviyev.

Durov had resisted attempts by investors to buy these shares. In 2011, he even posted a photo of himself making an obscene gesture as his "official answer" to such efforts.

UCP's president is Ilya Sherbovich, who sits on the board of the state oil company Rosneft and is close to its CEO, Igor Sechin, a key figure in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

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The other major shareholder in VKontakte -- with a 39.9 percent share -- is the online company, which is controlled by Kremlin-friendly tycoon Alisher Usmanov. Since buying the Kommersant publishing house, Usmanov has been accused of sacking outspoken editors and watering down the content of the company's media holdings.

Durov still owns a 12 percent stake in the company and, under a shareholder pact, has been allowed to vote on behalf of shares owned by

UCP has said it will not try to replace Durov, but online activists suspect this is the ultimate goal.

"All of this is designed to create an atmosphere of danger for Internet sites," Kozyrev says. "I think there is going to be a trend toward pressuring independent managers of Russian Internet resources in order to replace their management teams."

Security officials have made no secret of their desire to rein in the Internet.

"The opinion of the blogosphere is having a growing influence over the most serious political, economic, and social processes, and it is only expected to grow in the future," a spokesman for Russia's Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, told Interfax earlier this month. "There are information wars being waged here aimed at undermining people's trust in the state, including its law-enforcement bodies."

Markin added that these include campaigns being waged by "some oligarchs and foreign centers."