Is Russia’s social network chief really a free speech martyr?

May 7, 2013

VK founder Pavel Durov, called "the Mark Zuckerberg of Russia," is reportedly in hiding. (VK)

MOSCOW – The beautiful thing about a really good conspiracy theory is that it’s nearly impossible to disprove. And that’s especially true in Russia, where so much, so often, is so murky.

Now that a struggle for control of Russia’s largest social media company has broken out, a lot of people have naturally wondered if the Kremlin might be behind it, and if it might be about a clampdown on the Internet – especially on outlets that have proven to be so valuable to the political opposition here.

There’s a criminal case involving an alleged but dubious hit-and-run in St. Petersburg. There’s a Kremlin-friendly oligarch, Alisher Usmanov, who holds a minority share in the company, which is called VKontakte, or VK. Another company, “linked” to the Kremlin, seems to be muscling in. And the founder, Pavel Durov, has gone into hiding.

What’s juicy about this story is that nothing is very clear, leaving room for speculation about motives and intentions.

For the conspiracy-minded, the narrative goes like this: Pavel Durov, dubbed the “Mark Zuckerberg of Russia,” is on the run and the FSB, the Russian state security service, is behind it – and freedom of speech in Russia is poised to take another blow.

It looked like that to me, too. I went up to St. Petersburg in late April to work on another story and, while I was there, asked some well-informed people about VKontakte. Their take was that there’s less to the story than you might think, and it’s even murkier than the conspiracy theorists would have it.

For one thing, it’s hard to see Pavel Durov as a hero of free speech. VKontakte is seen as essentially a rip-off of Facebook. It’s a font of pirated videos and music, and as such has earned the wrath of the U.S. government.

During the political protests of 2012, there was pressure on VKontakte to shut down some of the discussion forums on the site. Durov publicly refused. But in March the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta accused Durov of collaborating behind the scenes with the FSB, providing users’ data and quietly blocking some from the site.

There are other reasons to doubt theories that the Kremlin challenged VKontakte to curb political opposition. With 46 million users, VKontakte is easily Russia’s biggest social media site, but it skews heavily toward teenagers. The sort of people who form the backbone of the opposition, most of whom live in Moscow, are far more likely to use Facebook. They post to VKontakte, to cover all bases, but Facebook is the preferred platform for the politically engaged.

Here’s where it gets complicated. The FSB is indeed investigating Durov over the hit-and-run incident in early April. it says the car belonged to him. His spokesman says he doesn’t own a car. A traffic violation does not normally come under the purview of the FSB, so why would they be involved if it wasn’t a political case?

The diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks back in 2010 provide a clue. In one of them, an American diplomat reports that, in the hierarchy of Russian corruption, the FSB runs the most effective of all the protection rackets. Any such racket would have nothing to do with politics or ideology, and everything to do with money. A pricey Moscow supermarket chain, for instance, is said to be under FSB protection. To be clear, we don’t know why the FSB got involved in Durov’s traffic case, but the point is that political motivation is far from the only possibility.

Durov may have thought he was pretty well protected. His founding partner in the company was Vyacheslav Mirilashvili, whose father Mikhail is a St. Petersburg businessman who recently served eight years in prison on kidnapping charges and who has been a target of organized crime investigations since Soviet days. But when a company called United Capital Partners made a move for a controlling share of VKontakte, that firms appears to have had a stronger – or perhaps higher – roof, to use the Russian slang word for the person or organization that provides protection. And manufactured criminal cases against the targets of hostile takeovers are a common tactic in the cut-throat business world here. All it takes is a friend in the prosecutor’s office – or the FSB.

“No one feels sorry for Durov,” Andrei Pivovarov, a key opposition leader in St. Petersburg, told me. “He’s not the one who will fight for someone’s rights. It’s a commercial dispute.”

That’s not proof against the conspiracy theory. A harsh crackdown on Internet free speech could be on the way. So far, though, there's no evidence of this. Even with its putative chief on the lam, VKontakte today is still operating as it always has.

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Caitlin Dewey · May 7, 2013