What's going on with Pavel Durov, the head of Vkontakte, the "Russian Facebook"?
He hasn't tweeted since April 24th, where he said this:Pavel Durov @durov 24 Apr
Рекомендую новоиспеченному акционеру VK воздержаться от комментариев по поводу активности СМИ вокруг ВКонтакте http://vk.cc/1sv06x
"I recommend the newly-baked shareholder of VK to refrain from commentary regarding media activity around VKontakte."
Then there's the question in the tweet above from Denis Ryabokonov -- "Pavel, have those numerous attempts gotten to you yet of "shareholders" to pressure you in order to turn #VK into OK and grab more money?"
And what he said was in answer to this (see above):
"There is, a little."
And that's worrisome. I asked three different Russians how they understood this somewhat cryptic phrase, as I wanted to test with a native speaker what I thought it meant -- which was 'Yes, there's a little pressure" not "Yes, there's a little money."
And since then...nothing.
Kevin Rothrock has a very long and complex post about Durov and his problems, but for some reason doesn't mention his cryptic last tweets. This paragraph seems the most relevant and likely:
Just days later, on April 22, Kononov himself weighed in on Durov’s current crisis, offering five potential conclusions [ru] to the story. In the most probable scenario (which Kononov amusingly assigns a “95% likelihood”), Vkontakte’s majority shareholders sue Durov over his Digital Fortress project (which turns out to be a sleek instant messenger app), and Durov must sell off his remaining Vkontakte shares at a depreciated price to pay the legal damages.
Because at the end of the day, whether in America or Russia, these platforms are businesses. They aren't Your Personal Army, as the Anonymous kids say. They aren't for revolutions. They're for a few people to make money from, a lot of people to upload cats on, and a relatively few to express dissent on. So far, the KGB's successors and their people infiltrated or turned in these social media platforms are content to let people chatter because then it makes less work for them trying to bug their phones or follow them to see what they are doing.
Social media -- why, it's like what the Belarusian trade union leader Ivashkevich explained to me back in the 1990s: "Glasnost is a cow bell. They tie around our nexts so they can find us." Right!
Even so, there are probably limits, whether on the free speech side or the business side, and Durov is probably finding those out now. I do wonder how long you can realistically give the finger to Usmanov, one of the most powerful men in Eurasia who owns a chunk of VK and guess what, of Facebook, too.
While he didn't hesitate to get the Belarusian opposition groups deleted as soon as they lost to Lukashenka -- he's not going to go to bat for the junior Slav brothers -- he did fight off other FSB attempts to close groups. But for how long? None of this lasts for ever in Russia -- and again, it's a business. It has to be run as a business, with profits, to pay for servers and employees, and that means it has to get along with the powers-that-be.
Rothrock argues with Miriam Elder, who explains these sorts of Internet problems with the obvious point that Putin wants to rein in the Internet by saying but oh, approved oligarchs already owned part of this for two years, and so what:
Nevertheless, almost half [ru] of Vkontakte has belonged to Mail.ru Group for nearly two years already, and Usmanov’s ownership has been above 30% [ru] since 2010. In all those years, Durov’s reign over the company, however colorful and rebellious, has depended entirely on the support of Russia’s richest oligarch [ru]. That being the case, what does the Kremlin gain from engineering “black PR” attacks on Durov? How does defaming Vkontakte for FSB collaboration “tighten the Kremlin’s grip on the Internet”?
Um, because it does? Because maybe he does? Because this has to end without him losing at least some of his business, so he'll compromise? It's a business, not a social project.
And if Durov survives, that doesn't necessarily mean that he's a liberal and force for good. He will likely compromise. And while Rothrock doesn't comment, his views are that amalgam of great Russian politics and populism and various far-out ideas that people like his have that are the usual mixture of libertarianism and corporativism. As I've noted in the past, he blocked me on Facebook when I challenged his "vision" for society because it sounded unattractive.
Unfortunately, because this libertarian Internet freedom fighter and web mogul has me blocked, I couldn't find his manifesto on Facebook right away, but then I found one of his adoring fans who summarizes it and reprints it:
The manifesto lays out a rationally sound proposal that takes a giant leap away from some of today's universally accepted but agreebly outdated social and economic models. The manifesto is a list of the top 10 things that Russia must do to become a major entrepreneurial nation and strengthen the economy. They are progressive libertarian views emphasizing human freedom, personal growth, open boarders, and prioritizing innovation in the small business segment. Durov's manifesto is the quintessence of the world view of modern IT geeks, the 'information people' who embrace openness, community, and boarder-less collaborations.
Border-less. Also, there were going to be popular votes for judges.
Here's the full manifesto, and you'll see what I mean -- and of course, he isn't bothering with this now, having more pressing problems:One
Rid society of the burden of obsolete laws, licenses and restrictions that spawn corruption. The world is evolving too fast for regulators to adequately respond to its changes in the 21st century. The best legislative initiative is absence.
Create a fully open, transparent and distributed jury system. All judges and the servants of the law on the ground should be elected directly by the public, rather than officially appointed. In the 21st century, the choice of arbitrators is more important than the election of deputies.
Dramatically increase taxes on all industries associated with the production of raw materials. The country needs to get rid of the Dutch disease, which pulls the country into the abyss for decades. The excess material in the 21st century is a satellite of stagnation.
Eliminate taxes and restrictions on everything connected with the informational sphere. Russia must become the first major global information center that will attract the most progressive and talented people in the world. This is a century of free information and we must embrace it.
Exempt the population from taxes, which ultimately always pays the consumer. We have a duty not only to raise the level of affluence, but also to reduce the conditions that undermine the chances of domestic business to succeed in global competition in a global market.
Provide the regions of Russia with fully autonomous organizations, with small uninhabited areas which will be leased for 100 years to create a system of mini-states. The output of hundreds of projects are effective and free to taxpayers. The 21st century is a century of decentralization and networking.
Allow the free circulation of gold and any electronic currency 100% backed by gold. Russia has become fertile ground for free and reliable means of payment. The national currency is anachronistic; it is a tool of the plunder for the population, and inflation. The 21st century is a century of free non-state currency.
A de-standardized education system. Today’s schools were created in the industrial age and resemble factories, which are imparted to the conveyor belt mentality. Specialists of the 21st century can be prepared only in non-standard educational institutions. The 21st century is a century of unique schools and unique specialists.
Allow taxpayers the right to choose direct cost projects, which are funded by their taxes. Projects can be at any level – from a playground in the neighborhood to a program of colonization of Mars. A party may advise the taxpayer, but not decide for him. The 21st century is a century free of exploitative tax.
End the registration, a passport as a separate entity, visas, conscription, and other vestiges of feudalism. Attempts to restrict the right of movement and recruit young people to Russian Armed Forces is a slavery that leads to an outflow of the best minds to other countries. The 21st century is a century without feudal boundaries.
Silicon Valley tycoons would love to have a corporativist vision like this in which they get exemption from taxes just for being fabulous, don't pay into the social coffers, and then destroy society's institutions and replace them with "projects".
That's what I mean by corporativism -- blocs or groupings in society based on a theme or a profession or a role that are autonomous but...limited because they are broken up and stuck in their theme or class. That's how fascism is able to take advantage of society.
Then, that Big List of Things to Do, as the Lindens touchingly called it, and tax-payers, instead of paying for things they don't care about like welfare for single moms or roads they don't happen to use would just pick the projects they like. So you'd just have a nation of Kickstarters, you know? Doing their thing. Lovely!
A year ago, I predicted that he would have problems unless he caved to Putin.
He swore that he would keep his service independent and resist pressure, but I didn't believe him. The only way you could do something like that is to really declare war -- and have the means to overthrow the government's siloviki (power ministers). And he doesn't. The Internet geniuses of Russia have always been about caving in the name of having their own power base and have always sneered at free speech.
Durov didn't hesitate for a moment to block me because I asked him why he allowed the Belarus opposition group to be deleted (Sannikov's support group of 8000 people) and then criticized that manifesto.
Some of these tweets below are creepy -- there's one that says he came online and spoke of Zuckerberg's marriage (which occurred after Facebook IPO'd), and says "It's time for Durov to marry," but then he says ominously, "It would be easier to kill him."