At a highly anticipated meeting today, Vladimir Putin spoke to Yandex’s Arkady Volozh, Mail.ru’s Dmitri Grishin, and others — all Internet industry leaders who stand to lose huge sums of money if the Kremlin’s Internet crackdown causes Russian consumers to take their business to foreign competitors like Google. The “Internet Entrepreneurship in Russia Forum” was organized by the Agency for Strategic Initiatives—a non-profit organization Putin created in May 2011, ostensibly to cut red tape for new businesses.
Throughout Putin’s third presidential term, which began in 2012, the government has released a steady stream of new regulations and laws curtailing online freedoms. In August this year, a set of “anti-terrorist” statutes will go into force, saddling bloggers and websites with a host of new obligations and restrictions. There are more laws rumored to be on the horizon that could pose additional problems for search engines like Yandex.
Times have been tough for RuNet businesses. In late April, after Putin stated publicly that the CIA controls the Web. When he complained about Western pressures on Russian Internet companies, Yandex suddenly dropped 16 percent on Nasdaq.
In the wake of these developments, and considering the fact that Putin hasn’t met with Internet industry heads in over a decade, today’s conference promised something provocative. What happened, however, was anything but.
RuNet VIPs at today’s forum did not ask the President a single direct question about the repressive Internet laws that have multiplied in recent years. Nobody asked about the law that will effectively equate “popular bloggers” with mass media. No one asked about the law that will force websites to archive half a year’s data on servers available to Russian law enforcement. Not a word was said about the Attorney General, which is now entitled to ban websites extrajudicially for “extremism.”
The person who came closest to broaching the sensitive issue of online political freedom was Mail.ru’s Dmitri Grishin, who gently suggested that the government consult more closely with Internet companies before passing new regulations. “It’s very often that the ideas in these regulations are very sound,” he began, “but unfortunately it sometimes occurs that the implementation, generally speaking, scares some people.” To avoid this, Grishin proposed a “system process” to ensure better feedback.
In response, Putin explained that regulations are unavoidable in a “normal society,” telling the audience that Internet commerce is now too big in Russia to escape state supervision. “Every day, a third of our citizens go online,” Putin said, “and of course this is subject to some kind of regulation.” The President then claimed that the government has consulted with Internet industry heads before introducing blacklists of websites that allegedly host child pornography and information promoting suicide, illegal drugs, and terrorism. “We’re all adults,” Putin observed, and then urged the crowd to “remember the children.”
The market has reacted swiftly to the results of the meeting — the Kremlin, it seems, has signaled that it won’t be digging in shareholders’ pockets. Yandex stock rallied to a three-month high, erasing losses from April. Shares in Mail.ru Group, too, reached their highest level since April 1 on the London Stock Exchange.
Internet freedom is a wonderful thing, but nothing apparently soothes investors like photographs of a smiling Vladimir Putin in a room full of nodding executives.