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The Kremlin's Internet Takeover: A Surefire Flop

"The Flop Scheme" from Mel Brooks' 1968 classic, The Producers. Where Leo Bloom realizes that a producer can potentially make more money with a flop than a hit. Screenshot from YouTube.

“The Flop Scheme” from Mel Brooks’ 1968 classic, The Producers. Where Leo Bloom realizes that a producer can potentially make more money with a flop than a hit. Screenshot from YouTube.

When it comes to technology, the Russian government makes up in ambition for what it lacks in competence. Earlier this week, on October 11, 2013, the Russian newspaper Vedomosti learned [ru] that state-controlled telecom Rostelecom plans to release a government-sponsored Internet search engine early next year. The service, tentatively named Sputnik.ru, would compete with Google and Yandex, and might enjoy certain privileges on government web portals (though the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary, Natalia Timakova, denied the use of any “administrative resources”).

Writing on LiveJournal and commenting [ru] on the Russian television station Dozhd, blogger and RuNet guru Anton Nosik has criticized [ru] Sputnik.ru as the latest in a series of the state’s wasteful, doomed online projects. He compares the planned Internet search engine to Russia’s four-year-old effort to create a functioning e-government portal, where citizens can obtain state services (like obtaining licenses, paying fines, and so on) without needing to visit multiple physical offices, where people typically stand in lines for hours. Nosik points out that Rostelecom (which, along with Sputnik.ru, is charged with operating the e-government portal) has integrated only 250 of over 34 thousand government services into the website.

Nosik’s criticism echoes [ru] Dmitri Medvedev’s comments [ru] in mid-September 2013, when the Prime Minister told a state commission that the low quality of work completed on the e-government portal is a discredit to the project. Despite Medvedev’s assessment, however, the Ministry of Economic Development announced [ru] on October 9 (just two days before Vedomosti learned about Sputnik.ru) that it would be reducing the e-government integration of state services by more than ten times, cutting the figure to “about twenty of the more popular services.” If this downsizing takes place, the overall 20-billion-ruble (619-million-USD) price tag on Russia’s e-government program would raise the cost of each available service to 1 billion rubles.

Vedomosti reports that Rostelecom has already spent 20 million USD developing Sputnik.ru, though Nosik is skeptical that even this hefty sum will be enough to build a website that can rival either Google or the RuNet’s leading search engine, Yandex (which annually spends five times that amount on development). Nosik and others are convinced that the government will need to resort to administrative levers, if it is serious about competing with such Internet giants.

In fact, on September 30, 2013, the collaborative blog Habrahabr published an article [ru] suggesting that the Safe Internet League (the group that spearheaded the RuNet blacklist) is in the process of building a case against Google, presumably to justify future limitations on the company’s Russia operations. The League already accuses Google’s Russia branch of circumventing federal laws, ignoring the demands of Russian law enforcement, and exposing Russian citizens to the long arm of American intelligence agencies.

While it appears to be only a coincidence, within two weeks of publishing its article about the League’s anti-Google campaign, Habrahabr landed [ru] on the Russian government’s Internet blacklist. The offending material (a user-submitted comment [ru] about how to commit suicide by firearm) appeared in a now-deleted article [ru] mocking the vagueness of a new initiative by Roskomnadzor and the Safe Internet League to ban websites containing instructions to readers that could “possibly” result in suicide.

Bloggers joke about what Sputnik.ru’s autocomplete function might offer. Image circulated on Internet. October 2013.

Bloggers joke about what Sputnik.ru’s autocomplete function might offer. Image circulated on Internet. October 2013.

While the pattern of Russia’s Internet policy is one of rising spending and growing interventions, the blacklist and news of a government-sponsored search engine have hardly had a gag effect on bloggers, who have enjoyed ridiculing [ru] the state for its string of technological failures. Valery Fedotov, for instance, has compared [ru] Sputnik.ru to Rostec’s troubled three-year effort to produce a Russian iPhone-killer (though the long-awaited result, the YotaPhone, is expected to come to market later this year). Others have photoshopped images (see above) of what Sputnik.ru’s autocomplete function might offer, joking that the service will encourage users to ask patriotic questions (such as, “Why is Russia the greatest country?” and “Why has Europe ended up in gay-slavery?”).

Given the size of the Russian Internet and the fighting spirit of ordinary Russian bloggers, it’s hard to see how any of the Kremlin’s recent flirtations with greater control over the Web could amount to much. That said, the billions of taxpayer rubles now flooding Rostelecom and its subsidiaries are perhaps all the justification Russian bureaucrats need to continue such “wasteful, doomed” work.

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