Information Wars

Social network VKontakte, the largest in Europe with almost 200 million users as of last year, was put on a Kremlin blacklist ‘by accident’ last week.  It seems impossible that there could have been anything accidental about it, given the litany of pressures piled on its owner in recent months – likely it was more a little reminder that the state is willing and able to use its new power to take any website offline, at any time, without warning.  As the second-most visited website in Russia, is inevitably on Vladimir Putin’s Most Wanted list – not just for its wealth of personal information, but for the groups and events function of the website, which provide indicators of shifts in political mood and, in some cases, reveal the plans and tactics of the opposition.  In addition to this, its founder Pavel Durov shows a little more than the average rebellious streak, allowing the opposition to use the site for planning purposes against the wishes of the authorities.

And so Durov has joined the ranks of almost every single subversive or oppositional character under Putin’s Russia – either in jail, on trial, or in exile (Durov fits the last two categories, fleeing Russia in April in the wake of dubious allegations about a traffic accident).  But Vladimir Putin has successfully tamed the rogue website – it is now under majority control of Kremlin-friendly investors, thanks to a little strategic pressure.  RFE/RL reports today that the latest large stake buyout of VKontakte shares was made the day after a raid on the company’s offices:

The day after VKontakte’s offices were searched, the private equity firm United Capital Partners (UCP), which has close ties to the Kremlin, bought a 48 percent stake in the company from Durov’s two founding partners, Vyacheslav Mirilashvily and Lev Leviyev.

Durov had resisted attempts by investors to buy these shares. In 2011, he even posted a photo of himself making an obscene gesture as his “official answer” to such efforts.

“All of this is designed to create an atmosphere of danger for Internet sites,” Kozyrev [Oleg Kozyrev, a media analyst and opposition blogger] says. “I think there is going to be a trend toward pressuring independent managers of Russian Internet resources in order to replace their management teams.”

Security officials have made no secret of their desire to rein in the Internet.

“The opinion of the blogosphere is having a growing influence over the most serious political, economic, and social processes, and it is only expected to grow in the future,” a spokesman for Russia’s Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, told Interfax earlier this month. “There are information wars being waged here aimed at undermining people’s trust in the state, including its law-enforcement bodies.”

Click here for the full piece.