The Russian government could drag the world back in time to the Cold War era with plans to develop and deploy a state-owned search engine named Sputnik.
According to Russian business daily Vedomosti, sources claims content regulation efforts won’t go beyond that of competitors, but the news breeds distrust and a sense of déjà vu. Over the past 18 to 24 months, state-controlled telco Rostelecom indexed roughly half the Russian Internet and invested $20 million in the project, Vedomosti reports. (The state owns a 53 percent stake in Rostelecom.)
Sputnik will land at sputnik.ru and shoots for a Q1 2014 launch, Vedomosti says. Attempting to visit that domain now kicks back an authentication prompt.
Prime Minister Medvedev’s spokesperson Natalya Timikova said engaging with the engine will be optional. But that statement should carry an asterisk, as some say government employees might have to use the service. Sputnik will battle Yandex, Google and Mail.Ru Group for market share in its segment. Yandex claims to be Russia’s most-visited site and “generated 62 percent of all search traffic” in the country.
Challenging Yandex could prove daunting. They’re Goliath in Russia, while Sputnik looks slingshot-less. Some feel the state-controlled engine will debut dead on arrival, and skeptical the reported $20 million pumped into the project will loosen Yandex’s grip on the market. Vedomosti reports Rostelecom now scouts the ecosystem, recruiting talent from competitors.
People and man-hours turn a search platform into a market leader. Yandex used to mean “Yet another indexer;” this past June, the company tallied its employees at just under 4,300. With roughly one-tenth Google’s staff and one-fifth Baidu’s, Yandex (which went live in 2000) reigns over the Russian Internet’s search segment from a crowded dais, highlighting how human capital got them on the throne.
“The creation of a high-quality search engine is a massive project, comparable to holding the Olympic games or launching the International Space Station,” writes Yandex rep Vladamir Isaev in an official comment via email. “The quality standard is very high, especially in Russia where several search companies have been competing aggressively for many years. It is not so much a question of investment as the result of systematic work by a talented team with specific expertise.”
“Solving complex problems is also driving the development of search, and that is the result of many years’ work,” he writes.
A state-controlled site could “censor” the web; but to be fair, all engines regulate content. Isaev explains Yandex’s policy: “There are several bills that [have] been regulating harmful internet content like child porn, extremism and drugs preparation/distribution which [have] to be blacklisted by government authority––Rostechnadzor is responsible for blacklisting,” Isaev writes in an email. “As soon as a harmful website is blocked it stops being indexed by a search engine or it can’t be reached from a search result page due to IP blockage. Of course Yandex follows the legislation as well as any other search engine if it work on Russian online market.”
But concerns linger Sputnik will go above and beyond blocking what’s blacklisted, putting a “pro-Kremlin spin on search results,” as the Moscow Times describes. A bill on the books giving Rostechnadzor leeway to smite whatever site they want into obscurity, plus precedent established––Vice reports Facebook temporarily got booted off the Russian Internet––paves the way for subjectively-administered censorship.
Once a sleeping giant in the tech sector, Russia may have awoken and cracked its knuckles. The Space Race now yields to another struggle: one for dominance in a digital world. Through this new platform, the country challenges a U.S. based engine, Google, and seems poised to take (at least partial) control of Russian data dissemination, perhaps rejecting transparency in the process.
President Obama cites cybersecurity as one of this age’s biggest challenges, one the American government remains unready to face. Clearly, Russia shows up on the American radar in the tech realm, and vice versa, as the two governments signed a cybersecurity agreement this June.
Between powerful nations, even the most friendly handshakes seem staged to determine whose grip is stronger. “A report late last year by the computer security company McAfee––a report based on interviews with third party experts––said that Russia, the United States, China, France, and Israel were all developing the capacity to attack and cripple computer networks including those that run critical infrastructure such as power grids,” writes David Talbot in an article for the MIT Technology Review.
Two Russian sovereign funds place 13th and 14th on the list of world’s largest, at $88 billion and $86.4 billion, respectively. The largest U.S. sovereign fund, the Alaska Permanent Fund, ranks 24th with $46.8 billion.
U.S. citizens may feel far-removed from Russian censorship debates. But the Bear is embedded in sectors of the American economy, notably the venture capital segment, where cash flows help forge ties that bind. Businessweek reported in 2012 that state-run joint-stock company Rusnano financed 18 U.S. projects with more than $1 billion (those receiving funds relocate to Russia). Billion-dollar fund-of-funds RVC pitches Americans Russian ventures, has invested stateside and plays LP to Trident Capital, Forbes stated. Digital Sky Technologies, a Russian company that concentrates on Internet ventures, invested $200 million in Facebook in 2009. And as companies and capital crosses borders, so potentially do practices.
Some project Sputnik just can’t win over competitors. Yet the existence of a state-owned search engine, with the government steering users to the results they should see, has transparency advocates scared––and for good reason.