In Front of Putin, Internet Titans Lose Their Nerve
Published: June 25, 2014 (Issue # 1817)
The statements that President Vladimir Putin made at a recent meeting with leaders of the Russian Internet are hardly worth discussing. As usual, he offered only vague assurances of support for a variety of freedoms while pretending that all of the recent legislative initiatives tightening control over the Internet were designed exclusively to fight pedophiles, drugs, terrorism and suicide.
What is worth discussing is the position of the Internet industry leaders themselves. In the run-up to the meeting, many observers recalled the conversation that then prime minister Putin held with Internet professionals on Dec. 29, 1999 — the first and only in the past 15 years.
Over the course of those 15 years the Russian Internet has evolved into an industry doing more than 5 trillion rubles ($143 billion) in business annually, employing 1.3 million IT professionals, generating 8.5 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product and accounting for 2.5 percent of all its trade. Almost every market is now connected in some way with the Internet. What’s more, Russian companies have shown that they are able to dominate the domestic Internet market even after global corporations entered the fray.
However, the people invited to the meeting with Putin did not behave like the leaders of such a powerful industry.
Many had hoped that the meeting would provide a forum to discuss the disastrous impact that two years of state regulations have had on the Russian Internet. They also hoped industry leaders would present a united front to the president — who personally inflicted serious damage to the sector by publicly stating that the Internet is the brainchild of the CIA and by criticizing Russian Internet giants Yandex, Mail.ru and Qiwi, causing their stocks to plummet on the Nasdaq.
Instead, the subject of regulation was never even raised. The recently passed law tightening restrictions on blogs was only mentioned once.
That comment came from Vkontakte deputy CEO Boris Dobrodeyev, who is himself hardly an opposition leader. Boris’s father, Oleg, is head of the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, a state media behemoth. Despite Boris having only worked at the social network since January, Mail.Ru Group — Russia’s second-largest Internet company and owner of a 52 percent share in Vkontakte — has already nominated him to replace CEO Pavel Durov.
And even then, Dobrodeyev only referred to blogs as part of his attempt to point out that Vkontakte has about 80,000 groups with more than 3,000 followers — a figure almost exceeding the total number of online media in the country and underscoring the importance of blogs to the Internet business as a whole. In fact, Dobrodeyev made his comment at an open meeting before Putin’s arrival, meaning that the president never even heard it directly.
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