Yandex, known as Russia’s Google, has caught the ire of Russian Duma deputies who dislike how it ranks top news stories, especially when they shed light on unpopular proposals that the national legislature is contemplating.
Deputies are questioning whether the popular “foreign-registered” Internet portal is purposefully trending popular stories to “stir up the social and political situation” inside the country, according to an August 14 post on the Duma's website.
As a publicly traded company with 80 percent of its shares traded on the New York-based Nasdaq exchange, the Moscow-headquartered Yandex is the latest “foreign” culprit whom Russian officials have accused of outside interference and encouraging public unrest.
Such allegations have risen to a level that “fake news” is now high on the agenda of an extraordinary Duma meeting that was called for August 19 to discuss “foreign interference” in the upcoming vote to the Moscow city council.
Some Russian officials have blamed the West, including the U.S. Embassy and Google, for promoting street protests that have taken place since July after independent and opposition candidates were excluded from the September 8 Moscow city council ballot. The protests are among the largest in Russia since a series of demonstrations in 2011-12 following parliamentary elections.
Invited Yandex officials will be asked to explain their position “in the near future,” a statement says on the legislature’s website. Yandex is the most popular search engine in Russia and receives millions of visitors a day to its main page.
A Kommersant daily story published online the evening of August 13 prompted the latest attack.
It was based on a letter that Alfiya Kogogina, who sits on the Duma’s Committee for Economic Policy and Industry, sent to various ministers about “developing a legislative ban” on the use of old vehicles.
Kommersant’s story -- titled The Duma To Consider Banning Old Cars -- sparked public outrage and landed in Yandex’s top news of the day.
Though the letter did not mention any age limit, roughly 30 million of Russia’s 60 million transport vehicles are more than 10 years old, Kommersant reported.
Russians’ disposable incomes have fallen compared to 2013 as the economy struggles with lower oil prices and biting sanctions, making purchasing a new car a hardship for many individuals and families.
Kommersant quoted KAMaz, one of the nation’s largest producer of trucks, as saying it supported the ban.
Sergei Kogogin, the president of KAMaz, is the husband of Kogogina, the United Russia lawmaker who sent the letter, the daily said.
Kogogina told the paper on August 14 that the letter composed by the committee was just a recommendation of the roundtable and not her legislative initiative. She said the recommendation just concerned commercial vehicles, not personal ones.
Members the United Russia faction in the Duma rushed to say they did not support the recommendation.
United Russia, the nation’s ruling party, has seen its popularity nosedive amid the economic stagnation that has pushed some people to protest low living standards.
United Russia member Andrei Isyaev complained that Kommersant’s story was still atop Yandex’s website later that day even after the Duma and United Russia party came out against the recommendation.
“It looks more than strange,” Isayev said August 14, according to the Duma’s website, pointing out that Yandex is registered outside Russia.
On the following day, August 15, Isyaev said that the Duma discussed with parliament speaker Vyacheslav Volodin not only the news on Yandex but also a recently introduced bill that would limit Yandex’s foreign ownership.
“An element of foreign interference may be seen” in Yandex’s methods for posting news, he said.
Adalbi Shkhangoshev, another United Russia Duma member, said on August 15 that he called Yandex CEO Yelena Bunina to ask her to change the algorithm for posting top news.
Russia has been tightening its hold over the Internet, which still largely remains outside Kremlin control, as more citizens get their information online. The state and pro-government tycoons own the most important TV stations and publications.
Last month, a United Russia member proposed limited foreign ownership of the nation’s major Internet companies to just 20 percent. Russian news agencies said the bill was aimed at Yandex.
The Kremlin wants Yandex to be owned by people with Russian passports, The Bell news website wrote. Yandex founder Arkady Volozh, who holds 49 percent of voting rights in the company, has a Maltese passport, in addition to a Russian passport. Yandex's structure also gives the state-owned Sberbank a "golden share" that allows it to block the sale of 25 percent of its shares.
Earlier this year, Yandex rejected a request by the nation's security service to hand over the encryption keys to its popular mail service.