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Sputnik: state-sponsored search to keep Russians safe

0 23 May 2014

Sputnik, a state-sponsored Russian search engine, was launched yesterday. 

The idea of a government search engine was first raised after the 2008 war in Georgia, when MPs expressed concerns that the top news stories provided by Yandex and Google didn’t correspond to the government’s position on the conflict.

News is clearly at the heart of the new service, which many expect to be installed as the default search engine in state establishments. There is a news feed above the search bar, while links to 6 state-owned TV channels are placed in the top right hand corner. 

The space below the search bar, which is filled with a gallery of striking photographs of Russian scenes, including a volcano in Kamchatka, a spectacular Siberian valley and a nuclear ice-breaker, adds to the impression that this is a ‘patriotic’ service.  


Safe search


Alexey Basov, vice-president of state-telecoms operator Rostelekom, which has created the service, explained that 

“We believe that users require not only a comprehensive set of search results, but also one that excludes untrustworthy information. This is no simple task, and one that we have only just begun to tackle, but it is the underlying principle on which Sputnik is based.”

Accordingly, users will be directed towards ‘official’ (i.e. state approved) sources of information, and anything on Russia’s ‘blacklist’ will be filtered out. While few would object to filtering out suicide advice or child pornography, the blacklist also includes a vague clause about ‘inciting extremism’ which has already been used to block access to the blog of popular anti-Kremlin activist Alexey Navalny.  


State-oriented


In addition to news, the site is also integrated with state services. Its “Comfortable Russia” service helps users to find official, up to date information, guidance on how to fill in documents or access benefits and links to state establishments, while the “My Home” service is based on a local level and helps users find their local polyclinic, police station, municipal administration or housing association. 

Despite its close connections with the state, Basov was keen to emphasise that this is a commercial project for Rostelekom designed to strengthen the company’s position in the fast growing internet market. As well as promoting Rostelekom products the service will make money from advertising and transactions. However, commercial activities will only commence once the project has moved out of beta mode and attracted a sufficient audience.


A top-10 resource on the Russian internet...


Basov also said that within 4 years the company aims to get Sputnik into the top-10 resources on the Russian internet.

At the moment, this list includes Yandex, Mail.ru, VK.com, Google, YouTube, Odnoklassniki, Wikipedia, Avito, Facebook and LiveJournal, which all have a monthly audience of between 18 million and 58 million. 


... but we won't force anyone to use it. 


Of course, the installation of the service as the default search engine in state establishments and schools would go a long way towards helping Rostelekom reach its goal. However, Basov refused to be drawn on the likelihood of this step, saying that

“As Sputnik offers services that are valued by the state and carries out social functions, any support from the state would be useful for the project. However, we would hardly plan to force the service on Russian users.” 

Even if the company is not able to capture users in this way, Basov hopes to attract many of the 40% of Russians that currently use the web either rarely or never. Rostelekom already provides broadband access to more than 10 million homes, and recently won a state contract to extend broadband to 13,600 small towns, putting it in a strong position to promote the service. 

The Russian search market, unlike much of the rest of the world, is dominated by a local player. Yandex has an estimated 62% market share in Russia, compared to Google’s 27.6% and Mail.ru’s 7.7%. However, although Yandex is a Russian company the government still seems uneasy about it. Its shares (listed on Nasdaq) plummeted last month after Vladimir Putin suggested that it was ‘pressured’ into having Western board members and questioned the motives behind the firm’s registration in the Netherlands.

Source: Vedomosti

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