Kremlin Leans on Russian Zuckerberg for Ukraine Secrets

Pavel Durov, founder of social network VKontakte, has resisted pressure to share information about online groups promoting Kiev protests.


Edward Snowden got a flat denial from President Vladimir Putin last month when he asked on a televised call-in session whether Russia engaged in mass surveillance. But a top local techie blew the whistle hard, shedding light on Kremlin tactics in its battle to control Ukraine. Pavel Durov is co-founder and was CEO of VKontakte, the Facebook copy that has far outshone the original in the Russian-speaking world, with some 80 million users. In mid-April he posted a letter he’d received from the FSB, successor to the KGB, demanding information on 18 online groups promoting the Maidan protests in Kiev.

Durov, 29, says he refused and quickly sold off the 12 percent of VKontakte he still owned after outside investors bought into the site. “Property in Russia is a lever for pressure on its owner,” he told an online newspaper in his native St. Petersburg. “If there is no property, there is no possibility for pressure.” The baby-faced entrepreneur known as the Russian Mark Zuckerberg added that, since December, VKontaktehad received “hundreds more requests to block social-political groups or produce personal data of Ukrainian users,” some backed by court orders. The company denied them on the grounds that Russian law holds no sway over clients from other countries.

Durov has publicly quarreled with partners, including VKontakte’s co-founders. United Capital Partners, a Moscow-based fund that owns 48 percent of VKontakte, has accused him of using company resources for his next personal project, Telegram. This Berlin-based messaging service lets users send encrypted and self-destructing text and photos.

VKontakte’s new majority owner will be Group, a London-traded company controlled by Alisher Usmanov, Russia’s richest man, with $17.6 billion in net worth, according to Forbes, and fruitful government relations. On April 22, VKontakte issued a press release saying it had accepted Durov’s resignation as CEO. The entrepreneur left Russia for an undisclosed location. “I’m out of Russia and have no plans to go back,” he told website TechCrunch. “Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with Internet business at the moment.”

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