Putin escalates pressure on Russia’s number one search engine after ban on ‘smart voting’ political search results

Billionaire Arkady Volozh, founder and CEO of Russian search engine Yandex, plans to challenge a ruling by a Moscow arbitration court last week that bars Yandex from displaying results for the term “Smart Voting,” following a a complaint from the Russian Federation.

The term in question – Smart Voting – is part of an effort by the Russian opposition that has formed around the once poisoned and now imprisoned Alexei Navalny to challenge the likely victory of Putin’s United Russia party in the election. scheduled for the State Duma on September 19.

The Moscow court agreed this week that the Russian Federation has “exclusive rights” to the term “smart voting” and that continued violation by Yandex by displaying mere search results could result in the “seizure of funds … or ‘other property belonging to the defendant and held by him or by other persons’. The specific “Smart Voting” website votesmart.appspot.com – published by Team Navalny, the name of the group for allies of Alexei Navalny – was banned in July, but the government’s review of search terms is a attempt to restrict the broader online conversation about tactical voting ahead of the upcoming election.

Volozh, the billionaire behind Yandex – the Russian equivalent of search engines like Google and Yahoo – was not personally named in court documents, but following the ban, a Yandex spokesman said Forbes, “We disagree with the court’s decision and plan to challenge the injunctive relief applied.” Adding: “From the document it is absolutely unclear exactly what we are required to do and how it can be done.”

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The ban follows a crackdown on a number of Navalny-linked YouTube channels in Russia and leaves social platforms in a precarious position ahead of the election.

The Russian Federation has successfully argued that it is the “exclusive rights owner” to the “Smart Voting” trademark and that Yandex should be prohibited from using the “Smart Voting” designation as one of the Research keywords when indexing sites. The idea that a government owns the rights to a set of words would not pass in the United States, or in some Western European countries.

Yandex, although listed on NASDAQ, is headquartered in Moscow and remains Russia’s largest tech company, with a market capitalization of over $27 billion. Volozh launched the company in 1997 and remains the largest individual shareholder and CEO. Forbes estimates his net worth at $2.8 billion. Co-founder Ilya Segalovich died of cancer in 2013, but is now credited with the name Yandex, which stands for “Yet Another Clue”.

The nation’s roller coaster history with its wealthy business class looms over tech entrepreneurs in Russia. The first generation of Russian billionaire entrepreneurs rose under Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, only to be stripped of their wealth in the years that followed.

Perhaps the most famous of these former billionaires, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, famed for oil giant Yukos and (before being jailed in 2003) once Russia’s richest man, tweeted yesterday: “So @yandex wants to challenge this absurd decision of the “court”. That’s fine, but Roskomnadzor has already blocked the Smart Voting website in Russia anyway. Why are Putin and his lackeys so nervous?

Roskomnadzor, the Russian government body supposedly responsible for overseeing communications, computing and media, has certainly been very busy lately. In July, Navalny associate Leonid Volkov revealed on Twitter that Roskomnadzor had written to YouTube accusing his 126,000 subscriber-strong personal YouTube channel of containing “calls for miss riots, carrying out extremist activities”. Another Navalny ally, Vladimir Milov, Russia’s former deputy energy minister, also revealed on Twitter in July that his YouTube channel (with 250,000 subscribers) was now on Roskomnadzor’s official blacklist of “banned materials”. .

Prominent Putin critic and former hedge fund financier Bill Browder said Forbes today that entrepreneurs in Russia are faced with a difficult decision. “All these people are in a difficult situation. On the one hand, they just want to run their search engines around the world… [But] when they encounter these situations, they are faced with a truly ugly Faustian bargain. To continue doing business, they must obey the dictator’s orders. It’s just not as rosy as Silicon Valley.