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Russian social media site VKontakte
Russian social media site VKontakte

Russia

Kremlin looks to crack down on social media site Add to ...

Georgiy Lobushkin had barely started his day when 20 police officers descended on his office in downtown St. Petersburg last month.

Mr. Lobushkin works for VKontakte, or “in touch”, a wildly popular Russian social media site that’s similar to Facebook. The police were ostensibly investigating a car accident and allegations that VK’s 28-year old founder, Pavel Durov, had run into a local cop. The officers took equipment, rifled through several VK offices and searched the home of Mr. Durov’s parents.

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No charges have been laid and Mr. Lobushkin calls the allegations ridiculous, saying Mr. Durov doesn’t own a car or even drive. He and others contend the raid was more about the Russian government trying to intimidate VK and Mr. Durov, the flamboyant idealist who has become a thorn in the side of officialdom by allowing all manner of protesters and activists to have pages on VK.

Just after the raid, a fund manager loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin suddenly acquired a 48 per cent stake in VK and has spoken openly about reviewing what he called its “illegal content.” Mr. Durov seemingly took the cue and vanished, surfacing only occasionally online.

“It’s a very hard situation,” said Mr. Lobushkin, 25, in an interview at VK’s headquarters last Friday. “For VK there is a series of scandals in the public and the media, and in Russia it means that somebody wants to take control of company.”

Until recently the Kremlin had largely ignored VK, which Mr. Durov launched in 2006 after starting an online student forum at St. Petersburg State University, where he studied philology. The site grew quickly and today has roughly 200 million registered users, 50 million of whom use it daily. That’s about 10 times the daily users Facebook has in Russia. And VK reaches far beyond Russia. Several U.S. and European celebrities have VK pages and much of the background about the Russian past of suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing came from their VK pages.

As VK grew, Mr. Durov became something of a cult hero, famous for his black wardrobe, modest lifestyle and abstinence from smoking and drinking. A self-described Libertarian and devotee of the Matrix movies, Mr. Durov has fiercely defended VK’s right to allow anyone to use the site and claims to have no interest in making money.

The government’s hands-off attitude toward VK – and the Internet in general – appears to be ending. Last summer, the Russian parliament passed a law regulating online content that the government said was aimed at stopping child pornography and extremism online. But it has been applied haphazardly, and the fear at VK and elsewhere is that it will be used to go after anti-Putin protesters who use social media to organize.

That has already started to happen. During the height of protests against Mr. Putin last year, Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, demanded Mr. Durov remove protest pages from VK. He refused and the FSB eventually backed down. No one is betting the internal security agency will do the same the next time.

Adding to the pressure on VK is the arrival last month of Ilya Shcherbovich, whose $3.5-billion fund bought a 48 per cent stake in VK from two other co-founders. Mr. Shcherbovich is clearly someone Mr. Putin counts on to sort out businesses that have gone astray. Last year the President hand-picked him to serve on the board of energy giant Rosneft after it ran into trouble and most directors were fired.

Mr. Shcherbovich has insisted that he wants the young founder to stay. But he also made it clear he wants directors to review the site’s content. “We will put these issues to the agenda,” he told Russian television last month. “We do not plan to recommend that any crucial steps be taken.”

Another 40 per cent of VK is owned by Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, another Putin ally who helped launch VK and owns stakes in Facebook and Apple.

For now Mr. Durov remains technically in charge. He owns 12 per cent of VK and was given voting control over Mr. Usmanov’s shares in a deal struck years ago. But his position has become so uncertain he has disappeared from public view, with some reports saying he fled to the United States. His one comment on Mr. Shcherbovich came via a cryptic message on his VK page: “I recommend to the newly appeared shareholder of Kontakte [to withhold] any comments,” he wrote.

Mr. Lobushkin, who handles the company’s public relations, said Mr. Durov wasn’t in hiding. But he wouldn’t say where he was and efforts to reach Mr. Durov failed.

Mr. Durov has made himself an easy target at times. A year ago he threw 5,000 ruble notes (about $160) out the window of VK’s offices, prompting mayhem on the street below and widespread criticism. Mr. Durov claimed later on a blog that he was making a statement about his contempt for money, but that didn’t ease the complaints.

And while he condemns money, VK operates out of the top two floors of St. Petersburg’s trendy Singer Building, a stunning art deco landmark with a giant glass globe on the roof. Inside, VK’s 21 programmers, all under the age of 30, work in a kind of flashy frat house. There are bean bag chairs, a games room, exercise equipment, a ping pong table and a crossbow for target shooting. The company’s conference room is decorated like a torture chamber with giant spikes hanging over a long table and a skeleton chained to the wall.

Sitting in his office that includes a life-size plastic zebra and a spiral staircase that leads inside the glass globe on the roof, Mr. Lobushkin is adamant that Mr. Durov is not interested in politics and only wants to offer a great service. But he acknowledged that VK is at a crossroad.

“Yes, it’s a key moment,” Mr. Lobushkin said. “It’s maybe a hard moment.”

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