The next time you pass a newsstand, consider the person who determined what publications would be displayed. The newsstand operator tries to appeal to passersby with a snapshot of what’s occurring in the world. When news aggregation occurs on a street corner, it’s a fairly simple business enterprise. When it happens on the Internet, some people in the Russian government, maybe Vladimir Putin included, are ready to treat it like a mass media undertaking.
Russian lawmakers are taking steps to classify news-aggregating websites as mass media, which would require companies like Yandex to register with the government and face stricter regulations. This latest legislative initiative responds to comments Putin made at a public forum in April 2014, when pro-Kremlin blogger Viktor Levanov asked the President how the state defines Yandex’s news-aggregation service. Levanov expressed concern that millions of people visit Yandex every day, where they see the website’s list of the “top five” news stories. Putin promised that the government was investigating the legal status of such online services, and would soon come to a decision.
Members of the Russian parliament seem to have read in Putin’s remarks not a “wait-and-see” message, but a call to action. On May 13, Duma Deputy Andrei Lugovoi asked the Attorney General to issue a ruling about whether Yandex is in fact part of the mass media. An answer is expected by mid-June. Reporting on the story, Russian newspaper RBC quotes several state officials who argue that Yandex must either part with its news-aggregation service, or accept the status (and restrictions) of mass media.
Apparent in many of the comments by government authorities is a blatant misunderstanding of how Yandex News actually works.
Yandex News is indeed intensely popular. Between May 2008 and March 2014, the service’s average daily visitors in Russia rose from about 600 thousand to 5.9 million. Yandex’s home page, which displays any moment’s “top 5” trending news articles, now attracts over 22 million people every day. Yandex, however, produces no original content. Moreover, the aggregation process, according to its designers, is entirely automated. Nobody at Yandex is writing anything. Nobody is even handpicking anything. Algorithms are responsible for everything found on the website.
Many in the Russian government, however, either fail to comprehend this, or refuse to believe it. Seemingly, state officials and pro-Kremlin activists are inclined to view the popularity of “bad news” in Russia as an editorial ploy to turn the public against the government. Yandex is no stranger to such paranoia. One of the most frequently asked questions featured in Yandex’s help section asks, “Why is all the aggregated news so negative?” (Yandex’s answer is that aggregated news is negative when most individual news stories are negative.)
Curiously, Google’s news-aggregation service seems not to interest Russian lawmakers. RBC quotes an anonymous source in United Russia, the country’s ruling political party, who claims that Google doesn’t curate news articles. While the service is perhaps more primitive than what Yandex offers, Google does in fact aggregate Russian news. There is even a feature called “Editors’ Picks” that allows publishers to handpick particular content.
According to reports, the Attorney General is expected to rule that Yandex’s news service does indeed constitute a mass media outlet. Once that determination is made public, Lugovoi or some other Duma deputy is likely to sponsor new legislation that would formalize the legal obligations of news aggregators like Yandex.
Could new regulations pressure Yandex into abandoning news aggregation altogether? Probably not. In 2013, Yandex earned more than 891 million dollars in advertising revenue—much of it from its News portal.