Aleksey Venedictov, the long-time editor in chief of Echo Moskvi, a popular radio station and online news site, plays a key role in the complicated relationship between the Russian internet industry and the ministers that preside over it. As an ‘older statesman’, he counts many leading politicians as friends, but business-wise he belongs to a more tech-savvy generation. This allows him to bridge the generation gap between techy internet bosses and party elites suspicious of the web.
Far from taking sides - Venedictov is a critic of both and he has recently expressed his strong disapproval of both the government’s internet policies and the work of RAEK, the main lobbying group for internet business.
In this interview with Nikita Likhachov of TJournal he provides an intriguing insider’s view of this crucial, complex relationship.
Last week you organised a meeting between internet businesses and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov. Why? What was discussed?
RAEK (the Russian Association of Electronic Communications) had a meeting with Shuvalov. This wasn’t the first such meeting - we have already met with other government figures with responsibilities related to the internet. I hope that these breakfasts will become regular occurrences, and that we will be able to use them to put forward the internet industry’s concerns about new legislation and the way that it is applied.
Next week there will be another meeting with Shuvalov - only this time it will be an official one, at Bely Dom I think. There we will present in written form our suggestions along with other leaders from online media. We will argue that recent legislation is poorly prepared and threatens the competitive advantage Russia currently holds in certain sectors of the industry.
This is how lobbying works - and there are also some other meetings that I can’t tell you about.
For example, with Shuvalov?
Why with Shuvalov? With people who make decisions that affect the development of the internet in the country.
Can you list the companies involved?
Google, Yandex, Mail.ru, Interfax, RIA Novosti, Afisha-Rambler, Gazprom Media - all those with an interest in the sector.
We are seeing a negative trend - more repression - and this has a negative effect on business.
Which laws in particular affect online business?
All the laws that relate to the internet affect business. We are seeing a negative trend - more repression - and this has a negative effect on business. I want to emphasise that we aren’t talking about freedom of speech here - we are representatives of business, and we aim to convince ministers that their un-thought-through decisions are making the investment climate worse. That is our aim. We are a normal lobbying group.
I’m interested in the timing of the meeting. Is it connected with one law in particular?
No. Issues have built up. The timing of the meeting is connected with the deputy prime minister’s timetable. I can tell you that we previously met twice with the President’s Deputy Chief of Staff Vyacheslav Volodin. We are having the meeting now because it is a time when they can attend, as can major internet players. Of course, recent legislation is also a factor. 25 amendments related to the internet have been presented in the passed 6 months. 2 have been passed, and 2 rejected.
A business that makes up 2-5% of GDP is a serious business that would be better not to mess up.
We think that the government’s approach is wrong, and we want to show its representative that a business that makes up 2-5% of GDP is a serious business that would be better not to mess up.
Does Shuvalov understand the internet better than, say, Medvedev?
Shuvalov is responsible for intellectual property. He represented Russia in discussions at the G8. We reckon that he is well-placed to influence the government’s understanding of internet development as a business and an environment.
So, with Shuvalov discussions are focussed on legislation, but with Volodin you talked about freedom of speech and the media?
No. With Volodin we talked about everything from freedom of speech to online retail from Ozon and Amazon and customs duties imposed by the government. I think that Mr Volodin understands the problems and dangers in this sector. Of course, he has his way of seeing things, but he, like Shuvalov, is ready to listen to us and, when he thinks it right to do so, to work together.
You were the initiator of these meetings, and it looks rather like you are the only point of contact between the authorities and the internet industry.
That’s not the case, but you should understand that I have known Mr Volodin and Mr Shuvalov for 20 years. There was a time when we were even friends, and we continue to discuss issue outside of our official work.
They trust me to bring to the discussion table people who represent the industry’s position, while the industry trusts me because I can get official people to informal, confidential meetings where both sides can try to understand the other. I think there are lots of mediators like me in Russia.
Is this a clear signal from the authorities that they are open to dialogue?
I don’t think that this is the authorities’ intention. I think it is more a signal to society that they are ready to listen. Of course, I am grateful that my influential friends are ready to cooperate with business.
I think that RAEK does very little, and it does it badly... I don’t know what they do, but I can see what they aren’t doing - they are not communicating with the people who can influence decisions.
RAEK portrays itself as a lobbying organisation focussed on internet-related problems. Apart from these meetings, what is it doing to further the industry’s interests?
I don’t know - you’ll have to ask them. Personally, I think that they do very little, and they do it badly. I explained this at the Russian Internet Forum, and Sergey (Plutarenko - the Director of RAEK) was very offended. I don’t know what they do, but I can see what they aren’t doing - they are not communicating with the people who can influence decisions. I think that this is down to a generation gap and different mentalities. In terms of mentality, I belong to Putin’s generation, but business-wise I belong to the internet generation. This allows me to be a communicator and to organise these discussions.
Is there anyone in the government who can effectively lobby for the interests of the internet industry?
Of course - mostly those with a background in economics.
Incidentally, I recently had a number of interesting conversations abroad. A meeting was arranged for me with the counter-intelligence chief of a European country and he told me “we are not going to clamp down on the internet, because it is precisely thanks to a free internet that we know where terrorist threats and drugs are coming from. If we clamp down, we won’t see these things.” I like this way of thinking. And the opposite - trying to root out threats by clamping down and forcing them underground, is, as I see it, wrong.
Russian ministers don’t understand how useful a resource the internet could be.
So you think that they (Russian ministers) don’t really understand how the internet works?
Yes, I think so. They don’t understand how useful a resource it could be.
Would you describe this as a sort of fear - people from another generation that don’t understand something and think that they can just ban it?
I wouldn’t equate lack of understanding with fear, and neither would I make them out to be fools. And it is precisely through these meetings, where they can see the next generation face to face and, instead of responding to prepared questions, can have a…
You could say that. It’s very useful. And I really hope that they can hear us and understand that there is another side to the argument, another way of doing things, that can be incorporated into their system and be of use, not harm.
Do you think that Robert Shlegel (a 29 year-old United Russia MP), for example, is able to represent the interests of the internet sector?
The best person is probably Sergey Zheleznyak, but there is a general trend which they, as MPs (deputies), have to go along with. There is party discipline. I think that this general attitude to the internet increases the threats to my country - the threat of technological backwardness, theft of intellectual property - and that’s why I am fighting against it as best I can.
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