The founder of Russia’s leading social media network — a wunderkind often described as Russia’s Mark Zuckerberg — has left his post as CEO and fled the country as cronies of Russian President Vladimir Putin have made steady inroads into the company’s ownership.
The slow-motion ouster of Pavel Durov from the network known as VKontakte, or “In Contact,” is the latest sign that independent media outlets in Russia have become increasingly imperiled.
Although months in the making, the loss of Durov’s leadership in VKontakte means that the space for free speech on the Russian Web could shrink even further.
Vkontakte users were even spreading jokes last week that the new nickname for the “In Contact” Web site should be: “In Censorship.”
As one of his final acts of defiance, Durov posted online what he said were documents from the security services demanding personal details from 39 Ukraine-linked groups on VKontakte, also known as VK.
Kremlin pressure on VK has been accompanied by increasing enforcement of Russia’s law against extremism, which took some prominent opposition and pro-Ukraine sites off the Web last month.
On Tuesday last week, the Russian parliament passed a law requiring social media sites to keep their servers in Russia and save all information about their users for at least half a year. The same law — which will go into effect in August if signed by Putin — gave bloggers the same legal status and responsibilities as media outlets, making them more vulnerable to accusations of libel or extremism.
Since the protests began in Ukraine, Putin and much of Russia’s media have amplified their patriotic rhetoric, proclaiming the need to secure Russia from enemies both foreign and domestic. In a televised call-in show a week ago, Putin equated those critical of Kremlin policy in Ukraine with Bolshevik revolutionaries who rooted for Russia’s defeat in World War I and discussions about the country’s traitorous Fifth Column have become the fare of state television.
VK, which largely resembles an older version of Facebook, attracts about 60 million users daily, primarily from countries in the former Soviet Union, vastly outstripping Facebook’s reach in the region. It played an instrumental role in bringing hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets in late 2011 in the wake of widely manipulated parliamentary elections and it has played a part in drawing crowds to the Kiev protest movement that helped oust pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych in February.
“There’s been a trend that started with the protests of December 2011, when the authorities started fearing the crowd and especially the online crowd,” said Anton Nossik, Russia’s leading Internet entrepreneur. “The pressure of censorship is mounting on Russian Web sites from lawmakers who think that the Internet is their foe.”
The 29-year-old Durov has cultivated a reputation as a rebel willing to stand up to Kremlin pressure, ostentatiously refusing to shut down VK groups linked to the Russian opposition movement or to give out personal information on its leaders.
He also has become known for more eccentric stunts, like throwing paper airplanes made of 5,000 ruble (US$140) notes out of his office window, or posting a photograph of his middle finger online after breaking up a major deal with a pro-Kremlin investor.