Who Will Save LiveJournal from the Kremlin?

bradfitz1204.jpgAside from Moscow’s willingness to recognize it as a sovereign state, it is difficult to imagine many parallels between Russia and California beyond an occasional disregard for personal hygiene and a fondness for fine vodka.

In the coming months, however, this may radically change, as one of the most popular and accessible blogging/social networking platforms, San Francisco-based LiveJournal, has been sold to the Russian media firm SUP, headed up by Kremlin loyalist Alexander Mamut, for reportedly $30 million.

In a strange twist of events, the future of Russia’s online freedom of expression may lie in the hands of the twenty-something “hacker and drinker” Brad Fitzpatrick (pictured), the founding designer of LJ, who now will head up a new advisory board to help determine the platform’s future. Naturally there is enormous concern and widespread speculation that this transaction will impact the privacy of LiveJournal users, who have come to recognize LJ as one of the few remaining pressure valves where independent political views can be discussed. The very idea of increased monitoring, tracking, and censorship the Russian blogosphere by state security agencies is a terrifying Orwellian prospect – yet the Kremlin’s current treatment of the mainstream media certainly encourages this line of thinking.

Are these concerns nothing more than paranoid conspiracy theories (which is how it is being pitched by the new owners), or will the LJ community need to look to Mr. Fitzpatrick for protection? (read an informative open letter from the LJ community to Fitzpatrick here).

The unlikely (and perhaps unwilling) hero Fitzpatrick shows an breathtakingly glib attitude toward the privacy concerns in his blog post about the transaction a few days ago, entitled “I, for one, welcome our new Russian Overlords.” Fitz says that although he didn’t receive “a fatty payout” from the deal (it happened after he left developer Six Apart for his current job at Google), he will have a much bigger role in LJ, and that he looks forward to reading all the nutty conspiracy theories about the Kremlin (implying that these suspicions are unfounded).

Let’s hope he is right.livejournal1204.pngThen again, Fitzpatrick appears to be a reasonably eccentric and brilliant millionaire hipster who decided that the company’s slogan should be “LiveJournal … because goats are cool.”

Since falling in with the Russians, a real live goat has joined the entourage, and depending on what you read, “Frank the goat” can be found in the Moscow Zoo or at the LJ + SUP drinking party in San Francisco last night.

A rather unreliable Valleywag rumor says that Fitzpatrick has a new Russian girlfriend and his Wikipedia bio states that he has started learning Russian – though it appears he hasn’t yet read any Anna Politkovskaya.

There are quite a few reasons why people are making such a fuss over SUP’s purchase of LJ. For some time now, a number of events have coalesced into a pattern revealing the state’s desire to wield greater control over online content. There was of course the high-profile case of the LiveJournal blogger who faces a $4,000 fine or two years in jail for having written a provocative comment about the police. Earlier, the government watchdog groups Rosokhrankultura and Rossvyaznadzor were consolidated to create an authoritative monitoring body to censure internet content.

Ivan Pavlov, who has guest blogged here in the past, has written extensively about the state’s troubling and hostile attitude toward the internet. There are of course the much debated new extremism laws which can be applied to virtually anyone, as well as the uncomfortable fact that Russia has the most murders of journalists outside of Iraq. And if freedom of the press and the treatment of journalists is any indication of a government’s disposition toward social media, Russia is not looking like the safest place for bloggers any more.

Konstantin Belov of UralSib told the Moscow Times that “LiveJournal is the last resort for those who want to write about their private life, hobbies and personal interests, but also their political preferences. Its popularity makes it an inevitable target for politicians willing to impose their views on millions of users.” No kidding?

However, there are also reasons not to jump to conclusions. For example, SUP has been in charge of running LiveJournal under license since 2006, so arguably not much will change in theory. They have promised to protect user data and keep the databases in California, where legally it will still be a U.S. entity subject to federal and state law. Also, it is important to note that this $30 million purchase would quickly become quite worthless if it was discovered that LJ data was being provided to the FSB, as most users would drop their memberships like a hot potato. We may not know much about non-transparent SUP, but we know that Alexander Mamut is in this to make a buck, a goal which is mutually antagonistic to FSB control obsessions.

However, how and when would we ever know if Mamut’s owners in the Kremlin came forward with some specific requests for the IP addresses of troublesome bloggers? After all, haven’t we learned anything from the Canadian firm Research in Motion, which in order to get the OK for Blackberry products to be used in Russia, was forced to hand over the encryption keys so that security services can access all these communications? Now that’s not just paranoid conspiracy theorists – that’s a problematic violation of privacy.

So let’s all keep an eye on LJ, SUP, Mamut and Fitzpatrick to see how this plays out. I would like to think that our young godfather of LJ would stand up on behalf of the community if put in a tough spot, even if he has to put up an apolitical front as a business expediency. Or perhaps I am vastly overestimating either his influence or good intentions or both. Let us know your thoughts.