VKontakte founder fired after alleged ‘surveillance row’

23/04/2014

The founder of Russia's biggest social networking site VKontakte has been fired following an alleged censorship and surveillance row with the Russian government, with claims that allies of President Putin have now taken over his site.

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Durov claimed in a post on VK that he was fired from the website without warning and only learned of his dismissal through media reports.

Durov had previously refused requests from the Russian government to censor posts on his site.
"It's interesting that shareholders did not have the courage to do it directly," Durov wrote. "I learnt about this mysterious dismissal from the press."

The site has been transferred to the "complete control" of Igor Sechin and Alisher Usmanov, two Russian oligarchs with close ties to Putin, according to Durov.

"It has become increasingly complicated to stick to the principles we once founded our social site upon," Durov wrote.

Durov had previously announced he was leaving the company but said he had withdrawn his resignation. The company denied it had been withdrawn.

Ukraine surveillance

Last week Durov posted that in December he refused demands from Russia's FSB security service to turn over information about members of the Ukrainian protest movement who use VKontakte.

"To give the personal information about our Ukrainian users to Russian authorities would not merely be against the law. It would be a betrayal of those millions of Ukrainians who trusted us," he wrote.

As a result of FSB pressure, he said, he was forced to sell his remaining 12 percent stake in VKontakte to a Russian telecom giant whose main shareholder is Mr. Usmanov. At the time he insisted that he would stay on as CEO of VKontakte to "watch over" the company.

But about a month ago he reportedly penned a letter of resignation, to take effect on April 1. He subsequently claimed that he withdrew the resignation, insisting that it should be obvious to all that it was "an April fool's prank."

‘Russia’s libertarian Facebook’

VK, commonly referred to as ‘Russia’s Facebook’ attracts 45 million daily active users. As founder, Durov has favoured the use of encryption to protect users' privacy and has been outspoken against mass surveillance, even inviting NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to join VK in 2013.

When ordered to shut down pages operated by activists rioting against the Kremlin in 2011, Durov refused. Speculation following his departure now points to greater state control of the site.

"Probably, in the Russian context, something like this was inevitable, but I'm happy we lasted seven and a half years," Durov wrote in his most recent post. "We did a lot. And part of what's been done can't be turned back."

Moving to other projects

According to the technology news site TechCrunch, Durov has left Russia and plans to work on other projects, including a mobile messaging app that encrypts data to protect it from interception.

"I’m out of Russia and have no plans to go back. Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with Internet business at the moment," Durov is quoted as telling TechCrunch on Tuesday. "I’m afraid there is no going back [to VKontakte]. Not after I publicly refused to cooperate with the authorities. They can’t stand me."

Read Durov's blog post here

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