Meet the Eccentric and Mercurial Russian CEO Who Offered Edward Snowden a Job
Paul Durov, dubbed "the Mark Zuckerberg of Russia," has invited the American whistleblower to work on personal data protection for users of Vkontakte, Russia's answer to Facebook.
"We invite Edward to Saint Petersburg and will be glad if he decides to join the all-star team of Vkontakte programmers," he said. VK is headquartered in Saint Petersburg, Russia's second-biggest city.
"No Internet company in Europe beats VK in popularity, after all. I think Edward might be interested in working on the protection of the personal data of the millions of our users," said Durov.
VK boasts that it has more than a 100 million active users. According to ComScore (NASDAQ:SCOR), in May 2013, VK served roughly 47 million users in Russia, thus putting Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) to shame with its decreasing monthly audience of about 11 million in that country.
VK plans to secure 70% or more of the Russian social media market and then focus on internation expansion.
Sounds like a great opportunity for Snowden, right? In fact, Vkontakte was one of the potential employers we recently suggested Snowden should've considered.
However, the story behind Durov and Vkontakte is deep, and at times, bizarre, to say the least. VK is perceived as one of the biggest hubs of pirated music and video, including pornography. This year some of its servers seized by police in Ukraine were found to contain child pornography. Soon, VK might face serious legal risks due to a new anti-piracy law in Russia that came into power on August 1.
Moreover, the social network is perceived by some to be the target of a future raid by agencies close to the Russian government. In April, Durov was accused of being a driver involved in a minor traffic incident in which a police officer was bumped and injured. (Because this is Russia, the event was captured by a dash cam, but the video doesn't answer many questions.) Durov, who says he was not involved with the incident, refused to testify in court and instead left the country. Even though the criminal charges against him have been dropped, his current whereabouts are still unknown to the public.
A fan of The Matrix movies, the sharp-looking 28-year-old tech prodigy prefers black clothes and showboat moves: In 2011, when one of the big Russian Internet conglomerates, Mail.ru Group (LON:61HE), was looking to expand its share in VK, Durov posted the image of a middle finger on his Twitter account as an "official answer" to the effort.
Life Advice from Pavel Durov (Excerpts)
- Never watch TV
- When choosing between foreign languages to learn, focus on English only
- Filter down your social media feeds to your field of interest
- Improve every day
- Spend less time on women and people who are dumber than you
- Never ever drink alcohol
- Have values that are higher than money
He also tossed a bunch of 5,000-ruble banknotes ($152) out of a window at his office to see how people would react. He later said that it was his response to what he calls "the cult of money."
"Money is overvalued, because producing things is more important than consuming things, and what's on the inside is much more important than what's on the outside," he once said.
Durov doesn't drink alcohol or smoke, and the VK site doesn't run ads for either product group. He also doesn't eat meat and prefers public transportation to luxury vehicles. Durov was reportedly living in a small rental apartment (215 square feet) close to VK's main office in Saint Petersburg before he went off the radar.
A supporter of the open source movement, Durov also donated a $1 million to Wikipedia in 2012.
He has famously refused to cooperate with the FSB (Russia's successor to the KGB) who would like Russian opposition groups blocked from using VK. In an open address he stated that the social network will maintain neutrality in regards to political movements.
The VK founder and CEO is also a prominent investor: In late 2011, he announced Start Fellows, an initiative to provide grants of up to $25,000 to aspiring technology entrepreneurs in Russia.
While VK remains one of the biggest social media enterprises overseas, the future of the network is fuzzy, especially given the multiple interests at stake in the battle for the control of the enterprise, not to mention the legal risks stemming from Moscow's new anti-piracy law.
And if the social network has to surrender operations to government-affiliated businesses, it probably would no longer be the kind of place where Snowden would like to spend his days behind a desk.