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It's an ill wind

Some Russian tech entrepreneurs would love it if their government blocked Facebook and Twitter

Quartz editors’ note: Last week a Russian official publicly threatened to block Twitter in Russia. Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev slapped him down, but it led to much speculation about the government’s true intentions. Hopes & Fears, a digital magazine about business in Russia, asked Russian entrepreneurs their views and published this article, which we’ve reprinted with permission, and with some explanatory notes in italics.

Today [May 16] Izvestia published an interview with the deputy head of Roskomnadzor [the Russian state telecoms regulator], Maxim Ksenzov, [saying that] the agency does not rule out blocking Facebook and Twitter if these companies don’t comply with the laws in force. Later, Vadim Ampelonsky, a Roskomnadzor spokesman, confirmed that the agency is indeed contemplating such a development. He stressed that if any tweet containing illegal information is blocked, it “will inevitably make the entire microblogging service unavailable in Russia.” Hopes & Fears asked entrepreneurs whose work is directly related to social media what risks this decision could entail.

German Klimenko, Founder, LiveInternet [a Russian version of Craigslist]

If we’re talking about Twitter, it has no role in our business turnover. Officials and bohemians use it, they’ll suffer, but it is not a real business. We know that social-media promotion is more a PR stunt than something really effective. If Roskomnadzor needs to block these services, no one will suffer any losses from a business perspective.

In fact, we should recognize that the more harshly the government treats foreign companies, the better things will be for their Russian counterparts. The quality of the user base on VKontakte [a Russian social network] would dramatically improve. Right now it’s still generally accepted that only teenagers and kids use it.

As for traffic, if we look at the overall statistics, Facebook has about 15% of all visits on RuNet [the Russian-language internet], and Twitter has 5%. So they’ll go to VKontakte, LiveJournal, or somewhere else. If we look at how other countries behave, we see that regulation there is often more stringent. In Israel loads of sites are shut down and nobody makes a fuss—the government just takes the decision.

We also often forget that monopolies generate huge demand from investors because they’re a more predictable business.

The only ones who suffer will be those who work on both sides [of the border]. For instance, games that are available in both Russia and abroad, they’ll have to make a choice. Companies that are based here will only benefit financially from the restrictions. Do you think that if the government bans Google, Yandex will be worse off? Business is unanimously in favor of this, but for various reasons nobody will say it out loud.

Denis Kryuchkov, Founder, Thematic Media [Owner of habrahabr.ru, a large IT community site]

As far as I know, there are no contacts between officialdom and Twitter right now; perhaps this statement was directed at the microblog’s leadership. If they have to talk to Facebook via [Ekaterina] Skorobogatova [Facebook's representative in Russia], then with [Twitter] there’s no way they can deal with the problem of undesirable content [because Twitter has no office in Russia]. I think that blocking it would be an extreme measure. This week Ksenzov had a meeting with industry representatives where the authorities indicated that they’re open to dialogue. For example, I asked what I should do about [user] comments on Habrahabr. They said they’re willing to make some specific changes to the law for industry sites.

If the Russian market matters to Facebook and Twitter, they’ll work within the law and cooperate with Roskomnadzor. It’s worth remembering what happened in Turkey—social media were banned for a bit, but after an outburst of indignation they were brought back.

Alexander Vinokourov, Owner of Dozhd, Slon, and Bolshoi Gorod [Among Russia's few remaining independent media websites, hence the only interviewee who seems truly alarmed by the move]

If Facebook and Twitter are shut off, there’ll be a global change in business, and a new era will begin. The question will then be whether business is possible at all or whether we’ll be living in a country more like the Soviet Union or Iran. The media will be hostage to government interests. Some will readjust, as long as private business isn’t banned. Then the question of where traffic comes from and how much of it will be driven by social media will be nobody’s concern any longer.

And such a shutdown is entirely possible—the events of the last few months have convinced me that nothing is impossible in our country.

Yuri Sinodov, Founder Roem.ru [A business news and community site]

Ksenzov’s statement is a sign of the state’s desire to have a way of pressuring Western companies that could carry out policies undesirable to Russia or influence our infrastructure. Remember the case of MasterCard and Visa—they were forced to keep significant sums of money in accounts in Russia and they’ll be required to work incessantly under the threat of losing that money in the form of fines.

I think the same will happen with Facebook and Twitter: They want to force these companies to bring their cash flows into Russia in order to make them comply with the requirements of the Russian authorities, under the threat of losing the money. True, this would be for media rather than infrastructural reasons.

As for my own projects, a block on Facebook and Twitter would probably be good for them: Lots of my competitor sites get traffic from there.

Denis Terekhov, Partner, Social Networks ad agency

I sincerely hope that it won’t come to a shutdown. But if such a situation does come to pass, we’ll have to turn our focus to communicating using Russian networks. This will of course affect the agency’s business, but probably not critically. Our client portfolio, including our online clients, is a diverse one.

Levan Nazarov, Partner, Mili.ru [Microlending site that uses social-media connections to establish trustworthiness]

Not more than 6% of our users have registered with us via Facebook. From a practical point of view, our mathematical models will work even better if those 6% come in via VKontakte or Odnoklassniki [another Russian social network].

Vitaly Bykov, Director of ad agency RedKeds

We run groups mainly on Facebook, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. If the first of these is absent in Russia, we’ll simply transfer all our accounts and our audience outreach to Russian social networks. We don’t see any particular problem for this business. It could well reduce our revenue for a brief period. But it will also mean less work, so we can go on vacation.

Translated by Gideon Lichfield. Images of interviewees by Hopes & Fears, via their Facebook profiles

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