The concept of protecting “free speech” is fundamental to sustaining healthy political discourse in any society. Yet in debates over copyright and content theft, those who oppose bringing any sort of regulation to the internet twist the concept of protecting “free speech” into a disingenuous cudgel to obfuscate the issue and generate opposition to anti-piracy efforts.
With this in mind, perhaps it’s worth looking at a recent example which demonstrates that the issue of squelching “free speech” is not inextricably linked to other forms of online expression, ie. piracy.
Russian social media site (and Facebook wannabe) Vkontakte (vk.com) provides a good example. Pavel Durov, the site’s founder, was recently pushed aside in favor of ownership interests tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Per news reports yesterday, he’s apparently left the Russia saying “Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with Internet business at the moment.” A piece published in January on TheVerge.com explained the power play in a piece, “How Putin’s cronies seized control of Russia’s Facebook,”
Durov, 29, sold his remaining stake in VK this week, officially ending his tenure at the helm of Russia’s most popular social network and turning the page on more than two years of turmoil and political strife.
Durov’s departure effectively transfers majority control of VK to business magnate Alisher Usmanov — Russia’s richest man, with an estimated worth of $20.2 billion, and a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. Durov sold his 12 percent stake to Ivan Tavrin, chief executive of telecom provider MegaFon, which Usmanov controls. (The exact sum of the sale was not disclosed, though it is believed to be between $300 and $400 million.) That means that Usmanov and his Kremlin-friendly allies now control 52 percent of the company, raising concerns over the future of VK and the freedom of its users.
Even though much of the Russian media is known to be under state control, the Internet has remained relatively free, with blogs and social media sites providing an important and creative platform for political discussion. But on March 4, the Kremlin once again took the media battle it has been waging against pro-Western protests online. Russia’s Internet monitoring agency Roskomnadzor blocked 13 profiles associated with the Ukrainian protest movement on the popular Russian Facebook equivalent VKontakte because they “contained calls to commit terrorist acts and take part in unsanctioned mass action.”
Vk.com has been in the Kremlin’s sites since 2011 when Durov refused the government’s request to close down pages that promoted demonstrations against its policies after the results of parliamentary elections were disputed. According to a report in RIA Novosti:
“We received a request from the FSB to stop the activity of Vkontakte groups calling for riots and a revolution,” Vladislav Tsyplukhin, spokesman for social network VKontakte, wrote on his corporate web page.
“We explained in response that we have been following those groups and cannot block them as a whole just because some individual users have called for violence,” Tsyplukhin wrote.
The accounts of specific users who have explicitly called for public disorder however are being blocked by the company, he said, adding that there had not been any excessive “pressure, threats or rudeness” from the Federal Security Service (FSB) in its requests.
While expressions of political dissent are being squelched, online piracy remains alive and well on the site vk.com. Earlier this month it was announced that Sony, Universal and Warner were filing suit in Russian courts, charging the site with violating copyright. Since 2011 the site has also been on the Office of the United States Trade Representative’s list of Notorious Markets that “identifies markets around the world that harm American businesses and undermine our workers, through the infringement of intellectual property rights (IPRs).”
vKontakte.com (also operating as vK.com): The Russian site vKontakte.com, in the List since 2011, is styled primarily as a social networking site, and it is extremely popular in Russia and surrounding countries. While as a general matter, social networking sites can serve many salutary purposes, this site’s business model appears to include enabling the unauthorized reproduction and distribution, including streaming, of music and other content through the site and associated software applications.
In searching the site this week I easily found multiple users who utilized the site as a file host for thousands of websites offering streams of pirated movies.
Nevertheless, Vkontakte offers a special feature which attracts more new members daily and makes them spend a lot of time online. Members are able to view thousands of pirated copies of domestic and foreign movies dubbed into Russian. In addition, it’s possible to upload and download video and audio files via the VK Tracker application.
Those who value free speech should be alarmed that Vk.com has fallen under the grip of Putin and his allies. The battle against piracy remains a separate issue here, and elsewhere. It’s time to disengage the two concepts. Fighting for one does not preclude fighting against the other.