10.10.23 Review

Contact Combat: How the authorities are attempting to turn VK into a tool of total control comparable to China’s WeChat

With the launch of VK Video, a fully-fledged ecosystem of social services has formed around the social network VKontakte, which, with varying degrees of success, meets all users' communication and entertainment needs. VK's management claims that this ecosystem encompasses 95% of the Russian-speaking Internet audience. The integration with 'Gosuslugi' (the Russian public services platform) appears to be an attempt to develop the social network into something resembling the Chinese super-messenger WeChat: communication, entertainment, and any service, including government ones, accessible through a single account linked to all of the user's personal data. In the 2010s, social services became a serious challenge for authoritarian regimes, but in the 2020s, they have become their most important tools for surveillance and the control of public life. VK is a prominent example of this trend. The company, seeking to gather as much data as possible from its users and to delve deeply into their private lives, is effectively controlled by the state through structures connected to 'Gazprom’. Recently, it has been managed by the children of Vladimir Putin's old associates. However, experts believe that the West, whose services VK is seeking to replace with its own, still has the opportunity to at least slow down the construction of this digital gulag.

Social networks, which became a real challenge for many authoritarian regimes in the 2010s, have become their most important tools for surveillance and the control of public life in the 2020s. This is particularly crucial for regimes that are on the path to autocracy because their Internet infrastructure was developed during a period of relative freedom. Research indicates that such regimes suffered most from the development of new media and social networks in the 2010s. Now, they must be resourceful in transforming these tools of freedom and civic solidarity into instruments of digital totalitarianism. In Russia, VK has become one such instrument — a service ecosystem built around the social network VKontakte, according to a report by the German Society for Foreign Policy (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, DGAP).

VK, formerly known as Mail.ru Group, is consolidating an increasing number of popular Russian Internet services, primarily content-related ones, as well as launching new ones. In September, VK officially introduced the VK Video platform, to which it had previously lured several Russian YouTube stars. VK Video is poised to compete with YouTube, and it may even replace it when it is blocked. Indirect signs suggest that the company is preparing for this possibility. The content delivery network that VK has deployed in recent years implies a significant increase in its audience, and it currently operates inefficiently because servers can idle without full load, according to experts interviewed by Forbes. Shortly after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, VK acquired the 'Yandex.News' and 'Zen' services, which had been previously owned by 'Yandex', in exchange for the food delivery service Delivery Club. VK also plans to create a dating app in the near future, similar to Badoo and Tinder, which have left Russia, and it has recently gained control over the educational service 'Uchi.ru'. According to media reports, the company is also planning to regain Boosty, a donation service for content creators. The company already estimates that its combined share of social networks ('VKontakte' and 'Odnoklassniki') and existing services (VK Video, VK Music, VK Clips, VK Messenger, 'Zen,' and others) accounts for 95% of the monthly Russian-speaking Internet audience.

More than half of VK's shares are publicly traded, but the controlling interest belongs to the company 'MF Technologies,' whose primary owners are affiliated with 'Gazprom'. VK is headed by the son of the Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Administration, Vladimir Kiriyenko. In September, VK announced the division of its business into two units: 'Social Platforms and Media Content' and 'Ecosystem and Integrated Services.' The first group is headed by Stepan Kovalchuk, the grandnephew of Yuri Kovalchuk, a long-time associate of Vladimir Putin. Thus, the company is being run by individuals with close ties to the Russian president. Interestingly, Putin’s war against Ukraine has benefitted VK. Some competing services were blocked (Facebook and Instagram), while others imposed their own limitations on their functionality (YouTube and TikTok). Against this backdrop, VK's audience has grown, as have its revenues. In the first quarter of 2023, the company's revenue increased by almost 40%, reaching 27.3 billion rubles. Online advertising revenues grew by 67% year-on-year, and revenue from social networks and content services on VKontakte increased by 46.7%.

The concentration of platforms and electronic services within one company could lead to the emergence of a new super application that aggregates a vast amount of user data, the DGAP report warns. Experts see this as a threat. If an application with a narrow scope is hacked, only a limited amount of data or information will be leaked. However, a super application could store a complete spectrum of data. For authoritarian regimes seeking to know as much as possible about their citizens, this is the ideal means of control over society. A telling example is China's WeChat, built on top of a messaging app. WeChat aggregates all essential personal data that users can use for interactions with government agencies or financial institutions. The app also enables payments, money transfers to friends and family, and credit applications. Through WeChat, users can access many services and goods, such as scheduling a doctor's appointment, buying plane tickets, ordering a taxi, or reserving a table at a restaurant. WeChat also serves as a job marketplace and an online shopping platform. One can even file for divorce via WeChat. Today, hundreds of millions of people cannot imagine their daily lives without WeChat. But, according to Chinese legislation, the state can access their data.

It appears that VK is moving in the same direction. Last year, developers announced that they would add some of the functionality of the 'Gosuslugi' (Government Services) app to the VKontakte app, which is used by nearly 100 million Russians. Now, through VKontakte, users can schedule doctor's appointments, check and pay police fines, and get information about pensions. Since February 2023, the 'Gosuslugi' app can be used to verify a VK account. It might be assumed that profile verification through 'Gosuslugi' could become mandatory for certain VK app features in the future, granting authorities even broader access to Russians' personal data. In March 2023, it was announced that notifications from 'Gosuslugi' could now be received directly in the VK app and through VK Messenger. In addition, the app is pre-installed on all new mobile devices officially sold in Russia.

From December 1st of this year, all Internet services that require user registration will only support Russian email services. Notably, the largest Russian email provider, Mail.ru, also belongs to VK. This means that even more user data on Russian servers will be easily accessible to the Russian authorities. In the long term, this could become a tool of pressure, similar to China’s WeChat: a user participating in a protest, for example, could be denied access to the platform, effectively excluding them from public life. And, for example, by collecting data on someone's VK Video viewing history, the FSB (Federal Security Service) could likely determine their political views. It is much more difficult to do this via YouTube, as the intelligence services do not have direct access to the data of YouTube users.

The author of the DGAP report believes that Western countries are in a position to slow down the construction of the Russian digital gulag and suggests several measures for them to consider. First, they should support the Western companies that are still operating in Russia. This is, first and foremost Google, but also Apple, the developers of the two largest mobile operating systems, as they could remove VK apps from their stores (this has been done before, but they were later reinstated), just as they removed the apps from sanctioned banks. If the Russian authorities respond by blocking their own services (e.g., the Google Search engine or YouTube), they should offer users a means to bypass these restrictions. Third, access to Western technology and equipment essential for VK's infrastructure should be cut off. This would be based on the premise that the company, while publicly traded, is effectively controlled by the Russian state.