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How Russia's internet 'hamsters' outfoxed Putin

By Andrew Keen, CNN Contributor
updated 5:46 AM EST, Tue December 13, 2011
Commentator Andrew Keen says Vladimir Putin has underestimated the internet's potential as a tool for his opponents.
Commentator Andrew Keen says Vladimir Putin has underestimated the internet's potential as a tool for his opponents.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Putin's United Russia party says internet "hamsters" are behind challenges to election win
  • Ironically, says writer Andrew Keen, internet users have Putin to thank for web freedoms
  • Lack of restrictions on Russian internet down to Putin's failure to grasp it's potential, Keen says

Editor's note: Andrew Keen is a British-American writer, entrepreneur and professional skeptic about whatever the herd is doing. He is known for his view that internet social culture and web 2.0 trends may be debasing culture -- a view vigorously expressed in his 2007 book "The Cult of the Amateur." His upcoming (June 2012) book "Digital Vertigo" is a defense of privacy and secrecy in our Web 3.0 age of radical transparency

(CNN) -- Vladimir Putin is being outfoxed by the hamsters on the internet. His ruling United Russia party described opposition activists challenging the legitimacy of this month's elections as "hamsters from social networks." Yet the country's future may now be determined by these critics on popular digital networks like LiveJournal, Twitter, VKontakte and Facebook.

That's because, after this controversial election, the relatively free Russian internet, with its 53 million users, is now offering an alternative version of reality to the so-called "crooks and thieves" who officially govern Russian politics and control its official media.

On the Monday night following the disputed election, at least 8,000 people marched to Moscow's Lubyanka square -- the home of the KGB and of its successor, the Russian counter-intelligence service FSB -- in what, according to the online news service Gazeta.ru, was then the largest ever demonstration against Putin's party. "Sometimes even hamsters can bite through the throat," boasted the influential opposition blogger Alexei Navalny at the rally in a not-too-subtle dig at United Russia's contempt for social networkers.

Andrew Keen
Andrew Keen

It's not much more than a mile or two from Moscow's gray Lubyanka Square to the Digital October building, one of Russia's new centers of innovation and openness, on the other side of the city's Moskva river. In Soviet times, the building was an industrial chocolate factory named Red October. But it has now been reinvented as a multi-million dollar entrepreneurial hub, a well-financed and lit place designed to incubate the innovative new Russian start-ups that are now making the country one of the centers of the European digital economy.

I spent last week in Digital October at an internet conference with several hundred Russian entrepreneurs, investors, bloggers and social networkers. In the wake of the demonstrations in Lubyanka Square, Russian networks like LiveJournal, Russia's leading blogging platform, were paralyzed by distributed denial of service attacks which had probably been orchestrated from the FSB offices in Lubyanka square. But at Digital October, there were no black-outs and I had the freedom to publicly interview a number of Russia's most influential hamsters about the politics and economics of their country.

One of the most illustrious hamsters that I interviewed was Anton Nossik, the Russian new media entrepreneur who founded Gazeta.ru in 1999 and is now director at SUP Media, a Russian holding company that owns a number of online properties including LiveJournal, the country's dominant blogging platform.

The ex-KGB officer, who apparently didn't even know how to send his own emails, simply didn't get the revolutionary potential of the online world
Andrew Keen, Silicon Valley entrepreneur

What is most striking about the Russian digital economy was its relative autonomy from the official regime. For example, while there are countless stories of Russian business owners (from dentists to factory owners to billionaire oligarchs like Mikhail Khodorkovsky) being shaken down and imprisoned by what some call an official kleptocracy, none of the countless entrepreneurs with whom I talked reported any interference from the regime in their start-ups. So who should Russians thank, I thus asked Nossik, for the relative freedom of the online world?

His response was worthy of a great Russian satirist -- a Gogol or a Bulgakov perhaps. "Vladimir Putin," Nossik said. That's whom Russians can thank, he said, for the political and economic openness of their internet.

Back in December 1999, Nossik explained, four days before Vladimir Putin went from being Russian prime minister to president, he met with about 20 of the country's leading internet entrepreneurs, including Nossik himself, and Arkady Volozh, the founder of the dominant Russian search engine Yandex. And in this meeting Putin pledged to leave the internet alone, to avoid, in his words, the "Chinese or Vietnamese models" of digital repression and censorship.

And thus the relative autonomy of the Russian internet was born. As Nossik explained, it wasn't because Putin was a closet democrat or a secret admirer of the internet's radical transparency. Instead, he didn't understand the potential of the internet to establish a parallel network which could challenge and undermine the official regime. The ex-KGB officer, who apparently didn't even know how to send his own emails, simply didn't get the revolutionary potential of the online world.

Russia could certainly learn a thing or two from the cult of Steve Jobs
Andrew Keen

So, to borrow some words from Vladimir Ilych Lenin, what is to be done? There were no hamsters in "Animal Farm," George Orwell's satire of Lenin's Bolshevik revolution. But in Russia today, it's the entrepreneurial hamsters from Digital October who are building an alternative reality to the official version of the world peddled by the secret policeman of Lubyanka square. But in today's virtual online world, geography has only symbolic meaning. To travel that mile or two from the opaqueness of Lubyanka Square to the transparency of Digital October requires more than a frustrating ride through the clogged streets of central Moscow. It may even need another Russian revolution.

Russia's Steve Jobs need a revolution

There is no doubt about the technology book of 2011. It's Walter Isaacson's masterful official biography of Steve Jobs, a book which, while only published in October, is already the best selling book of the year on Amazon.com.

The success of Isaacson's "Steve Jobs" also offers a parable to those other country's seeking to emulate Silicon Valley as a global center for technology innovation. The Steve Jobs in Isaacson's biography is a cultural phenomenon, a complexly anti-authoritarian yet dictatorial start-up entrepreneur produced by the counterculture of the 1960s, a figure now beloved by the mainstream culture who has made mobile phones and personal computers sexier than music, movies or books.

Russia could certainly learn a thing or two from the cult of Jobs. While the country has some of the smartest technologists, engineers and entrepreneurs in the world, the broader culture has failed the embrace the ideal of innovation or the business success of its own citizens.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the internet will make Russia a more tolerant or democratic society
Andrew Keen

At Digital October last week in Moscow, I interviewed two of Russia's leading internet entrepreneurs -- Arkady Volozh, the co-founder and CEO of the search engine Yandex and Dmitry Grishin, the CEO of the internet portal Mail.ru.

While neither Volozh or Grishin possess Jobs' personal charisma, they have achieved remarkable things. This year, Volozh took Yandex public on the New York NASDAQ market in a $1.3 billion deal that made it the largest tech IPO of the year in America, while Grishin took Mail.ru public on the London stock exchange last year in the UK's biggest public deal of 2010. Volozh is even transforming Yandex into a global search engine that is successfully competing with Google not only in Russia, but also in Turkey, the Czech Republic and several states of the former Soviet Union.

And yet Volozh and Grishin, in spite of their remarkable international accomplishments, remain unknown in Russia where the mainstream culture is, at best, indifferent towards technological innovation and entrepreneurial success. So perhaps more than a political revolution, what Russia needs is a cultural revolution -- one that transforms entrepreneurs like Volozh and Grishin into Jobs-style paragons of a globally competitive 21st century Russian digital economy.

Virtual future for the Kremlin?

There is, of course, no guarantee that the internet will make Russia a more tolerant or democratic society. Back in 2008, I wrote an article entitled "Digital Fascism" which argued that the internet was an ideal breeding ground for movements of racism and rage. Meanwhile, as critics like the Ukrainian-American author Evgeny Morozov have argued, that all the supposedly transparent tools of social media are being effectively leveraged to spy on people by the secret policemen of Lubyanka square.

What is beyond doubt, however, that Russia's future is intimately connected with the digital revolution. In Aaron Sorkin's movie, "The Social Network," Sean Parker (memorably played by Justin Timberlake) Facebook's first president, says, mashing-up Marx and Hegel: "We lived on farms, then we lived in cities, and now we're going to live on the internet!" In Russia this may already be true. People's political lives are now being lived on the internet and thus, for better or worse, the politics of 21st century Russia will undoubtedly be as much virtual as real.

Follow @ajkeen on Twitter

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Keen

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