In the drawn-out game of will-he, won’t-he, Pavel Durov, the founder of VKontakte.com, Russia’s top social network with over 100 million users, is now out for good from the company with an unceremonial dismissal conveyed via a newswire report. So what’s next? “I’m likely to start building a mobile social network this year,” Durov tells TechCrunch.
The idea, it seems, is to develop the new, un-named service outside of Russia. He didn’t say this, but I suspect the idea is to build on the groundwork Durov has already laid with Telegram, one of the new breed of mobile messaging apps that encrypt your data to keep it safe from prying eyes.
When we contacted Durov to ask about his future plans, he wrote back saying he was no longer in Russia.
“I’m out of Russia and have no plans to go back,” he wrote in the exchange. “Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with Internet business at the moment.”
Durov says that the latest move from VK.com’s shareholders, which was based on a technicality in how Durov “resigned” a month ago, is the final nail in the coffin for him and the social network. Ironically, the shareholders still appear to be offering a position to Durov as a chief architect.
I’ve learned never to say never in Russia, so who knows what might happen next on this front. But at least for now Durov is saying this is really the end.
“I’m afraid there is no going back,” he said of VK.com, “not after I publicly refused to cooperate with the authorities. They can’t stand me.”
The back-and-forth between Durov has been going on for many months now, and has become a tangle of issues in the process.
They involve not just ownership of the successful company — often called the Facebook of Russia for its popularity and also its user interface design — with Internet powerhouse Mail.ru now controlling a majority of shares, but also what role the government plays in controlling content on VK.com.
In the wake of several political conflicts both domestically and in neighboring countries like Ukraine, VK.com has become a platform for people to rally support for positions, often in defiance of the Kremlin and Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin.
Durov has been resistant to those who have tried to restrict freedom of expression on the platform, and he believes that this is at the heart of the leadership fight, as he told us a month ago, and then re-confirmed in more statements on VK.com last week. You have to wonder how and if the odd appearance by Edward Snowden on Russian TV, on the subject of government surveillance online, sits in relation to all of this.
Even beyond all of that murkiness, the situation is messy. Shareholders have been playing up publicly the role of other issues as spurs for leadership change at VK.com.
There are questions, for example, about where VK.com sits in terms of its wider business — it’s the subject of ongoing negotiations, suits and threats of suits about copyright infringement because VK.com is also a very popular platform for streaming and exchanging media.
And there are Durov’s wider interests, specifically around his Telegram app. Telegram had a surge of interest in the last couple of months because of a perfect storm of sorts: Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp has seen some turn away from the popular messaging app and look around for alternatives; and in general the public has started to become a lot more interested in apps offering “secure” services that do a better job of keeping their data away from commercial and government data gatherers. One of VK.com’s shareholders, United Capital Partners, has criticised Durov’s focus on Telegram at the expense of his attention on VK.com.
For now, it looks like VK.com’s deputy chief executive Boris Dobrodeyev and executive director Dmitry Sergeyev are running the network on an interim basis.