Crime, Punishment, and Russia's Original Social Network
J Thoendell stashed this in Tech
Two months ago, Navalny—arguably Putin’s enemy number one these days—encouraged a Kremlin opposition group to use Facebook to organize a protest in Moscow for January 15. That was the day Navalny was set to receive his final sentence after years of tumbling through Russia’s byzantine legal system.
The protest page drew over 12,000 RSVPs. But around December 20, the page was suddenly blocked for users located in Russia. It was shut down by Facebook at the Russian government’s request, according to the Roskomnadzor, a federal body that oversees the internet on the Kremlin’s behalf.
Durov condemned Facebook for allegedly blocking the page, saying the company had "no guts or principles."
Durov at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in Berlin in 2013. Image: TechCrunch/Wikimedia
The censorship would seem to be at odds with Facebook’s values. In September, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg touted the social network’s role in the Arab Spring revolutions, claiming that the social network is still being used to resist oppressive governments. “People who want to do it, can,” she said.
Yet the precedent set by VK suggests something else. The social network has been essentially lobotomized. Since Durov's ouster, the media sharing and political content has disappeared (meanwhile, violent homophobia surged). Most of the content shared on VK is sympathetic to the Kremlin, Rothrock said.
Facebook and Twitter are probably just one refused takedown request away from being blocked in Russia entirely, free speech advocates say, which presents a difficult choice for those social networks. According to a report Twitter released in February, the company received 91 takedown requests in the last six months. Twitter complied with 12 requests, but said that many of them were “attempts to suppress non-violent demonstrations,” and Twitter would not deny "several requests to silence popular critics of the Russian government and other demands to limit speech.”
Twitter is feistier about free speech, less likely to comply with vague governmental orders, and more transparent when it does. (Facebook, Twitter, and VK declined to comment for this story.) Facebook has publicly struggled to mediate how its users talk to each other—first hate speech was overwhelmingly protected, and then condemned. But when a government steps in with a “legal” order, its actions in other countries suggests Facebook complies as quietly and quickly as possible, taking the small loss in traffic from activists to avoid being kicked out of an entire country.
But if VK continues to be instructive, Facebook and Twitter might want to know that Durov has no regrets over cutting ties. “I am very happy that my life/career in Russia is over,” Durov told Motherboard.
Though he sold off his last financial grip on the company under political duress and had to say goodbye to a massive company he founded, the timing turned out to be right: “the Russian internet market crashed dramatically after that. In a way, I am grateful for shareholders and/or political forces that caused me to sell my stake,” he said. “I feel happier… running a service for a global audience.” A global audience that, per the Kremlin’s interests, may soon exclude Russia.