Imagine if, in the span of a month, the FBI investigated Mark Zuckerberg for a hit-and-run, investors launched a hostile takeover of Facebook and Zuckerberg disappeared under vague circumstances.
It sounds crazy, but that’s more or less the situation playing out in Russia right now, where Pavel Durov, the founder of VK -- known as “Russia’s Facebook,” it's Europe’s largest social network -- has been in hiding since security forces fingered him for a hit-and-run and a businessman with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin bought out half the company.
Skeptical reports in Der Spiegel, Britain's Guardian and the Russian-language business journals AIN and Hopes & Fears speculate that the charges might just be the Kremlin’s latest attempt to clamp down on Russia’s upstart social network, which has become a platform for dissent. According to police, Durov has committed a crime he needs to answer for.
To understand the drama, you need to know a little bit about VK and its history in Russia. The six-year-old site has 46 million active daily users, making it less than a tenth the size of Facebook, which after all is global in reach -- but popular enough in Russia and the former Soviet republics to more or less keep Facebook out.
VK operates a lot like Facebook, though. People have profile pages with photos and walls and biographical information, such as their home towns, interests and political views. (Durov, the VK founder, lists his views as “libertarian.") VK also has group discussion boards and an upload system that lets people share photos and videos -- though, unlike on Facebook, the shared media is often pornographic or pirated.
Those last two features, the forums and the uploads, have gotten VK into some trouble. Foreign governments, including the United States, have called on Russia to clamp down on VK for its piracy. Ironically, this may be a rare issue on which the two governments agree, though not because of piracy. Within Russia, VK served as an online staging ground for opposition protests after the December 2011 elections, which -- according to foreign monitors -- may have been skewed in Putin’s favor.
Russia’s state security service, the FSB, soon demanded that VK shut down its forums, Der Spiegel reports. Durov refused to comply. A year later, in October 2012, the Communications Ministry proposed a bill that would make such censorship easier by requiring Internet service providers to block or slow sites blacklisted by a government committee.
From there, the story gets a bit hazy. In mid-April, according to Der Spiegel, a businessman named Ilya Sherbovich – who sits on the board of the powerful, state-run oil company Rosneft, and is reportedly close to Putin – attempted a hostile takeover of VK, buying 48 percent of the company “in a clandestine manner” from two of the company’s founding partners.
Later April, detectives searched both VK’s corporate headquarters and Durov’s apartment, confiscating some of the site’s servers. The search, they said, was related to a hit-and-run incident on April 5, in which someone driving a white Mercedes grazed a police officer and drove off. The officer wasn’t injured and, according to Der Spiegel, “there is no evidence that the incident ever took place." VK’s spokesperson told the AFP that Durov doesn’t actually own a car.
Durov hasn’t been seen publicly since then, according to Russian media, and last week he failed to respond to a court summons about the hit-and-run.
That leaves VK in a strange, even precarious position. An October poll found that 65 percent of Russians favor some Internet censorship, especially as it relates to adolescents and “dangerous” material.
Unnamed sources with knowledge of the company told the Guardian that Sherbovich's buy-up put 88 percent of the company under the control of shareholders with indirect connections to Putin. Their majority stake would theoretically allow the board to name another general director at its next meeting, pushing Durov out of VK’s top job.
Durov, meanwhile, has reassured VK users that the network won’t be subject to censorship any time soon.
"As long as I am general director, nothing in VK will change for the worse," he wrote in comments translated by the Guardian. "Everything is OK. To start changing things for the worse, they have to deal with me first. That's impossible to do using legal means."