Is Russia Google's next weak spot?

Big news from Russia today: RBK Daily, a respected Russian news agency, reports (in Russian) that the Russian government might soon be launching a "national search engine". According to RBK's anonymous sources inside Kremlin, it would aim at satisfying "state-oriented" needs such as "facilitating access to safe information" and "filtering web-sites that feature banned content." It's going to be an ambitious project: the government is prepared to invest $100 million in this new venture, does not want to allow any foreign funding, and intends to build it in cooperation with the private sector.

RBK mentions several interesting players that have either been already consulted or would be asked to join soon : Rostelecom (Russia's state-owned telecommunications giant), ABBYY (one of the leading software firms specializing in document recognition and translation - the company was actually founded in Russia in 1989!), and "Ashmanov and Partners" (an Internet consulting firm led by Igor Ashmanov, a pioneer of the Russian Internet and a former senior executive at Rambler, one of Russia's first search engines).

The idea to "nationalize Internet search" comes from Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of the presidential administration and the mastermind of a recent plan to modernize the country by building Russia's own Silicon Valley (that project is also advancing very rapidly: Viktor Vekselberg, one of Russia's richest people and Kremlin-friendly oligarch, has been appointed to lead the initiative, while Esther Dyson -- a famed American technology investor - has been named as one of the main candidates to join him as a co-chair  UPDATE: Esther Dyson says that these speculations are not true). The government has warmed up to Surkov's Internet plans -- perhaps, after hearing the recent news from China -- and Victor Shegolev, Russia's Minister of Communications has been appointed to curate it.

To understand why Kremlin might be embarking on such a supposedly doomed project, one has to look at the structure of the Russian market for Internet search. As in China, it's a domestic company that controls it: according to just released estimates from LiveInternet, Yandex holds 62.8 percent of the market, with Google holding just 21.9 percent of the Russian market (two other search engines -- Mail.ru and Rambler -- have 8.4 percent and 3 percent respectively). But these figures conceal the fact that Google's share has been growing very rapidly: until 2006 Google has held only a tiny share of the Russian market (around 6 percent ) but it has significantly expanded since then (in 2009 Google's PR chief in Moscow even said that "Russia is a pivotal country for Google").

Now, Kremlin clearly views Yandex as one of the most innovative Russian companies and keeps a very close eye on its operations. In 2009 Sberbank, a state-owned bank, even bought Yandex's "golden share", which gave the state veto power on the sale of more than 25 percent of Yandex's shares (in a recent interview with Kommersant, one of Russia's leading newspapers, Yandex's president explained such a close relationship with the Kremlin by the need to have "transparent rules" for attracting investment, arguing that Yandex "has become part of a national infrastructure" and such close ties with the state are inevitable). When in late 2009, Yandex shut down its list of most popular blog posts in the Russian blogosphere -- which had often been used by activists to push their causes to the national attention -- some read it as a sign of the state's growing control of its activities.

I believe that Kremlin has no interest in destroying Yandex -- it's one of the few Russian companies that are actually very innovative and well-known abroad and Kremlin has plenty of other means to influence where Yandex is going- so the real target of this "nationalization of search" must be Google. The big question is: How good of a Google competitor can the Kremlin really build, given that they have almost unlimited resources (both financial, technological and legal ones)?

We should not underestimate Kremlin's capacity to adapt to the digital realities: they have cultivated a sprawling community of Internet gurus who work or consult for the government (Konstantyn Rykov and Askar Tuganbayev are good examples) and they do have a lot of private sector expertise to draw on.

Earlier today Igor Ashmanov, one of the people that the Kremlin consulted about the "national search engine", gave an interview to the Echo of Moscow, a liberal Russian radio station, where he shared his views about the growing political role of Google and search engines in general and what a national search engine might accomplish in Russia. Ashmanov is one of the most influential people on the Russian Internet and the first and only person familiar with Kremlin's plans to go on the record so far. Even though he does not work for the government, I think his opinions are not that far from what Russian bureaucrats would make of Google's problems in China and its murky future in Russia. Below is my translation of some of his most illuminating quotes (italics mine):

On Google as an instrument of the US government and on its role in China: Google is just another way [for the US government] to tease China for not being a democracy and to get it to barge on certain economic issues. So if the Chinese don't want to weaken renmibi's exchange rate, we [the US government] would say that, from the perspective of a true religion of democracy -- of which the US is the capital - you are heretics and we'll be teasing you for human rights violations and the like until you weaken the rate...

Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO, frequently meets with Hillary Clinton, goes to special breakfasts [ at the state department]; the US authorities often say that Google is advancing the causes of democracy in China. How should the Chinese government view this? As an intervention in their affairs. That's exactly what they are doing...Google was founded in a university, it works with intelligence services - the US government would be silly not use it for America's own good.

On the idea of a national search engine: In principle, it's possible to create such a search engine, if you create a strong team, make them co-owners of the project and give them superb technology. It can be Rambler, it can be Aport (an obsolete Russian search engine); those can be revived. Second, the state should make sure there is a [business] environment where such sites can flourish.

A national search engine [may be subsidized so that it] does not need sell any ads in its first few years, which is quite attractive. It has to focus on getting a market share, not making money. Third, it can be installed in all state institutions, on all computers that are assembled in Russia, in all schools, prisons, military institutions, hospitals and so on. This can guarantee it a certain level of traffic; 10-15% is what they can get.

Then one can talk about the owners of Internet resources that are close or loyal to the government -- and we know that there are oligarchs that are socially responsible and close to the state -- and to install this search engine on their own resources. So finally this may lead to a national search engine. This won't help to topple Yandex, but it would help overtake Google, Rambler, and everyone else.

On what would happen if Google wins in Russia: [From a state perspective, if Google wins in Russia], it would be really bad. It would be bad -- and it doesn't matter that some would think that Russia is not a democracy and it does not like it. Even the democratic Europe doesn't like Google's domination...

No one likes it because, first, a search engine is a means of influencing public opinion, and second, it's a source of unique information about what people think and what kind of information they want. Whoever dominates the search market in the country knows what people are searching for; they know the stream of search queries. This is completely unique information, which one can't get anywhere else.

To be fair to Ashmanov, he also expressed some skepticism as to whether the government would be able to pull it off unless they really commit a lot of resources to this project (which, in his view, they aren't doing at the moment.) Nevertheless, his strategy of how such a national search engine might compete with Google seems very realistic to me: if the government does move to leverage the power of the Kremlin-friendly oligarchs -- who own most of the online property on the Russian Internet -- as well as to require all state institutions to make this new search engine their default start page and install it on all new computers sold in Russia -- they may, indeed, gain a significant share of the Russia market. If this is combined with some soft or hard pressure on Google -- think tax raids on their offices or some lengthy litigation of the kind that is now happening in Italy -- it's not unfeasible that a national search engine might steal a significant market share from Google.

This plan for a national search engine is not an isolated development. Earlier this year the government has been debating - without reaching any conclusion -- the plan to give a unique government-run email account to every Russian (supposedly in order to facilitate their access to e-governments services: a unique email account would help to authenticate that the right people are getting the right services).

It also needs to be seen within a global movement launched by many other governments to achieve "information sovereignty" (i.e. distance themselves from Google, which is perceived to be too close to the US government). In fact, I am struck by how much similarity there is between what's happening in Russia, Turkey, and even Iran. In December, I wrote about the Anaposta project launched by the Turkish government in order to do just what the Kremlin wants: build a national search engine and a national email system for every Turkish citizen. In early February, the Iranians announced their own plan for national email (mostly in order to bypass Gmail - which could be interpreted as them just wanting to score propaganda points following the news announcement that Google was talking to NSA).

The idea of national search engines is not new. Europeans have been toying with similar plans for a few years now but to no avail -- there was simply not enough political will in Europe to make that happen (who now talks about Quaero, a much-discussed European alternative to Google that never really took off the ground?). Russia, on the other hand, is a different case: the Kremlin wants to build this new engine for reasons that have nothing to do with national pride or the need to preserve national heritage. All Kremlin wants to do is to establish firmer control over the information flows in the country and given that they have quite a few unfair advantages -- both market-based and legal -- they may as well succeed.

Most interestingly, I am wondering if American diplomats and technology gurus are shooting themselves in the foot by lending their expertise to the likes of Surkov. Wouldn't that be ironic if the result of all those luxurious US State Department-funded (UPDATE:  according to Esther Dyson, the trip was not paid for by the government) junkets to Siberia would be more tax raids on Google's offices in Moscow?

p.s. As it turns out, Estonia already has a national email system, which proves that this is not impossible. For more details, please see this.  The only difference: Estonians have access to any other email services, while Iranians may soon have no choice.

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