Category Archives: Russia

Demand for internationalized domain names

Once a year or so ICANN holds a conference called ICANN Studienkreis.  This is another forum where one can get updated with various ongoing internet governance topics.  The last meeting took place earlier this week in Barcelona, but unfortunately there was no streaming of the event and I could not find any records or transcripts from it.  The only available record is the agenda with links to a number of PDFs of various presentation.  These are of course not very informative, but there is still something we can learn from them.

One presentation that caught my attention was by Andrey Kolesnikov from the Russian Coordination Centre for TLD.ru, which he gave in a session on internationlized domain names (PDF).  It caught my attention because I got recently interested in the debate surrounding this topic and hoped to learn about how things are going in countries that have already applied for a localized top level domains (other presenters on the panel were from Egypt and China). There is only so much one can learn from just looking at PPT slides, but here is an attempt.

Russia is the only country I know of that has already auctioned localized domain names, even though the approval of the top level domain in Cyrillic is still in the works.   As such, Kolesnikov was in a position to shed some light on the actual demand for localized domain names, as opposed to arguments about their great potential.  And if I read his slides correctly, I think he did.  Here is what he has to show:

RussianIDNdemand2010

The early registration process, or the “sunrise” period, is still going on, but these numbers are interesting.   There are currently over 369K domain names registered in Russia and according to Coordination Centre for TLD.ru, there are over 2.6 million domains registered under the .ru top level domain (RU).  In other words. we can see that the trademark holders and Russian domainers are either careful with grabbing this opportunity or skeptical of the entire enterprise.  Of course this is a very early stage in the process, but if it is indicative of a trend, than at least in the case of Russia, the skeptics might have a point.  Of course the situation may be different in other parts of the world and in other cultures, but Russian industry does not seem to be too excited.

Am I overanalyzing this?  Am I taking these number out of context?  What do you think?

Beware of the Skypzzz!

Rhetoric has been always a very powerful tool in promoting both policy and business agendas.  Russian telcos are now putting the old-good argument of security in promoting legislation that may allow them to succeed where their European and other colleagues have failed.

DevilishSkypeIt seems that all around the world the telcos feel threatened by Voice over IP (VoIP) applications that run on their infrastructure and offer free of charge voice services, with Skype being an iconic example*.  Only recently, the European telecos tried to argue for unfair competition and asked to discriminate against the use of VoIP on their networks.  The European Commission took a firm stand against it arguing for principles of net-neutrality also on mobile networks.  In the US AT&T, together with Apple, work against VoIP applications such as Skype and Google Voice to be used on the iPhones.  It will be now up to the FCC to take a stand on that issue.  Finally, the Israeli leading mobile service provider, Cellecom, is also seeking ways of limiting its users’ access to VoIP and some other technologies, under the slogan of “quality of service.”  The Israeli Ministry of Communication actually took a pro net neutrality stand in this case, but the argument is still going on.

In Russia, however, the local industry decided to make the long story short and instead of appealing to amorphous concepts such as “fairness” in competition or “quality of service” it turned to a more basic instinct – fear.  According to this article, Russian telcos have warned the Kremlin that:

“…the foreign-made VoIP software, easily downloaded from the Internet, is a threat to national security because it is resistant to eavesdropping by Russia’s intelligence agencies.”

To make things a bit spicier, they also added some nationalism.  The lobbying group was quoted saying that:

“The majority of brands operating in Russia, such as Skype and Icq, are of foreign origin and therefore we need to ensure the defense of national producers in this sector”

While some civil rights activists are concerned with the state openly talking about spying on people, others view it a bit more pragmatically.  In a recent hearing on the subject it was estimated that in about 3 years 40% of voice traffic in Russia will be VoIP.  This creates a significant incentive for the industry to cooperate on legislation that “will bring order” to the VoIP market.  Indeed such an effort is currently underway in Russia.

There was limited, but critical reaction on this topic in the mainstream Russian media and  even the blogsphere reacted only on the margines; some expressed concerns, others healthy sarcasm.  I wonder though, if conversations about VoIP are going on in other countries as well, and if so, what arguments are made against and for it.

* Disclamer – I use Skype and, to the most part, like it.

TIGRing

Just a day before the inauguration, the Obama team has published a video about their Technology, Innovation and Government Reform (TIGR) group.  As its name suggest, that is the group that will supposedly lead technological innovation in the Federal Government.  My understanding is that they are the people running change.gov and they were behind their Citizen’s Briefing Book initiative.

This latter idea probably deserves a separate post, but in the meantime, I just wanted to share a couple of observations from visiting change.gov after consuming it primarily via an RSS feed for quite a while now.  What you miss when you consume content via RSS are the comments.   This is where it is getting interesting.  When I checked the aforementioned post, there were only 16 comments and here is what I saw.

First, it is really difficult to maintain an open platform and at the same time maintain your agenda.  Naturally, the TIGRs are using change.gov in order to share information about government activities presented in a positive light.  However, it looks like people are not necessarily interested to talk just about the topic set by the administration.  Thus, for example, there were a number of comments dealing with some controversy surrounding Bishop Robinson.  I’ve been slightly out of the loop recently, so I am not sure what the controversy is about, but people seem to care and seem to feel free expressing their dissatisfaction and critique on the transition team’s website, even when the topic is something absolutely not related.

Second, kind of related to the previous one, if you open your communication channels, there is no way you will be able to downplay criticism.  In this particular post, people have been voicing their criticism also about the technology and innovation aspects of the transition team’s conduct.  Particularly, there were some comments about people’s dissatisfaction with the way their opinions were treated in the Citizen’s Briefing Book project.  Apparently, the visitors of change.gov voted legalization of Marijuana as their top priority, but this topic was apparently neglected from the book.  I am not sure whether this opinion represents the popular opinion of the American society or just that of those who feel comfortable using the web to participate actively.  Anyhow, the TIGRs are probably factoring in additional information and not just the users’ comments.  It looks though that the users of change.gov do view themselves as representing the entire country.

Third, again related to the previous, the issue of digital divide was brought up in this discussion by the users. A user named Mona Marlow wrote:

“While I think this is a vast improvement, one aspect has been overlooked. There is a huge portion of us who live and work in rual America. We cannot view some of this “new” tech, thus miss out on alot. Due to the lack of having access to or affording the high-end internet access required to partisipate and/or view some of this new content. It would be of great help and service to “us” if there was a basic html view as well. There is not much you can do of the video content, but perhaps have a transcript of it for rual America to read.
Thank You”

The bottom line is that after almost 3 months in the air, change.gov is evolving in terms of user participation and it will be interesting to see where the new administration will take it.

In the meantime, on the other side of the Atlantic, things are also changing.  The Russian president Medvedev has also opened his website to comments, but in the meantime only in the Russian version (RU).  I couldn’t spend much time on the site, but from what I saw the comments are more on the topic.  Of course the space is moderated (RU) and on the face of it there are more and clearer restrictions than on change.gov (here).  At the end of the day, however, I don’t think we have many chances to actually know what comments are not getting published on both websites.

So, these were my few observations for the moment.  Now back to work!

P.S. By the time I finished writing this post, there were already 33 comments on that post.  They got traffic!

P.P.S. An update. Actually, on kremlin.ru the discussion is also split. They actually provide a split of the main themes of the comments. So, in the latest post (RU) 785 comments were left on the topic (development of mass/public sport) and 396, the second largest category, were about the management of the comment space.  The admins of the website have even published stats for the period between Jan.12 and Jan. 19 (may be still available here in RU):

  • 7558 – Activated users
  • 961 – People who have not confirmed their email addresses
  • 230 – Blocked users
  • 2354 – Comments published
  • 982  – Blocked comments
  • 396 – Comments being reviewed

According to them, comments that were not published, contained personal complains or specific requests that needed an individual answer (that is not allowed according to their comment policy).  They say however that in all(?) those comments no contact information was provided, so they will not be able to take care of those complains and requests.

Obama was not the first

There is a lot of conversation going on about Obama’s internet strategies.  Even though his team seems to be pretty savvy on the technological side, there are still calls to use more information technology to further government transparency and direct communication.  In an earlier post I have already mentioned change.gov and the intent of Obama’s administration to build on the online momentum they created during the election in order to maintain direct communication with the public.  People seem to be excited about the move and about the innovation (not as much technological as political) associated with it.

Would you be surprised to discover that Obama was not the first to use that approach?  I don’t mean the campaign and the massive online donation, but the direct communication between the president and the masses using the internet.  Well, it seems like Russians were there first.  Surprising isn’t it?

Not to suggest that Obama’s administration is copying the Russian strategy, but the germ of the idea emerged in the RuNet in the beginning of October (also RU1, RU2, and there is much more out there).  I don’t think it ever made it to the Western media, but I find this rather fascinating.

I learned about it thanks to Grisha (RU) who puzzled me with a riddle about who was the author of the following quote:

Freedom of speech should be assured through technological innovation.  Experience demonstrates that it is useless trying to convince the government officials to “leave the mass media alone”.  We need not to convince, but to more actively develop the free spheres of the internet and the digital television.  No government official can interfere with discussions in the internet or censor thousands of channels at once.”
(I really apologize for the quality of my translation :)

Apparently, this quote belongs to Dmitry Medvedev, the president of Russian Federation (RU1, RU2, and there is more).  It went mostly unnoticed by the Western media and I think it really dissonances with the image of Russia as a place where most of the mass media are virtually under the government control.  I was also really surprised and it prompted me to look more into it.

Image via Wikipedia

Medvedev turned out to be a fan of information technology and the internet.  The Russian version of an entry about him on Wikipedia actually mentions this and through sources who are more immersed in Russian media and politics than me, I learned that he is actually reading blogs and answers his emails personally (not through his aids).  Quite fascinating, isn’t it?

His presidential website, which I have never visited before, turned out to be rather interesting .  It has both Russian and English versions and both are quite elaborate.  It has a lot of information about the constitution, the government structures, news about the president and his travels, as well as related media travels, and much more including a dedicated website for school-age children (RU).  It has a database of his speeches and even a video blog, where Medvedev explains “behind the scenes” of the government work (you can embed the videos or get their complete transcripts).  From a quick glance over the two versions of the website I couldn’t notice starring differences.

Although the fact of Russian president utilizing the internet in such an innovative way is both interesting and surprising, the comparison to the platform offered by Obama during his campaign, is slightly artificial.  The platform Obama offered during his campaign was highly interactive and included many of the social elements that made it so successful.  Medvedev’s website is more of a one way communication.  You have no option of leaving comments or feeding the administration back.  It is more of the propaganda oriented vehicle that allows the president to bypass mainstream media, which I think downplays a lot of the strengths it could have for transparency and accountability.

Unfortunately, change.gov is closer to Medvedev’s model.  Although there are feedback channels on the website that allow submitting ideas, job applications, etc., there is no space to have a discussion or even to comment on the blog posts.  I do hope this will change and more of an open and interactive approach will be applied once the new government is in place.  I hope it will be similar to what Obama had on his election website.  But this is not the main point of this post.

This encounter with Medvedev’s website further pushed my thinking about the potential of personal perceptions and attitudes of policymakers to influence the actual outcomes.  Grisha and I had a short email exchange raising the point about the difference in technology-related rhetoric of Putin and Medvedev.  It seems that it is not only the rhetoric, but also practice is now becoming evident.  It will be definitely interesting to watch how two technologically savvy and technologically enthusiastic presidents are going to utilize the cyberspace for their, probably different, purposes and interests.

What do you think?

Paying to socialize?

Tech.blorge, one of the blogs on my RSS feeds, recently published an entry titled “Would you pay to use Facebook“.  They are echoing some of the ideas raised as a reaction to rumors that Facebook, which raised half a billion dollars less than two years ago, is running out of cash.  One of these ideas is subscription-based Facebook, meaning you will have to pay for accessing the website.

Right now this sounds more like a speculation, but it looks like the Russian social networking websites are actually experimenting with the subscription-based models.  I wrote in the past about the various ways Odnoklassniki.ru is monetizing on the social aspects of online social networks.  Recently, my father pointed out an item (RU) in the one of the Russian-language new websites, which states that Odnoklassniki is now requesting payment from new users asking to register.  According to this article, the registration now will cost between $1-2.  Those who choose not to pay will not be able to view other people’s profiles, contact other users, etc.  In other words the free registration is lacking any of the “social” elements, which is the main reason for people to join.

I looked a little bit around and there are more news items about that move in RuNet.  The official rationale stated by the Odnoklassniki management is that the paid registration is aimed at combatting spammers, who tend to open numerous accounts and use them for promotion of their products.  Some of the critics disagree (RU), suggesting this is just a way for Odnoklassniki to force the spammers to share their profits from the network.

In any case, it will be interesting to see whether or not the paid registration model will turn out to be sustainable.  Probably Facebook crew and others will be watching as they think about their next move. In the meantime, I do wonder if you would pay to socialize online?

Do social networks have a business model?

As the economic sky is getting covered with clouds of financial crisis and deepening recession, people start questioning the web 2.0 oriented business models, or more so the lack of thereof.

Recently I read about Mark Zuckerberg making statements suggesting that growth is the primary goal of Facebook at this point, and not revenue.  They do a pretty good job with the former (even though it is becoming harder), but at the end of the day it is the latter that matters.  Basically what he said in an interview to (German newspaper/site) NAZ.com is that Facebook has yet developed a business model, which is really mind boiling provided the amount of investments the receive.

In this light, I started thinking about the different approaches the US and the Russian social networking enterprises are taking.  And I wonder if at some point, Facebook and others will try to adopt some of the methods they Russian counterparts are using.  I think that Russian enterprises are not as “spoiled” in terms of investments and in terms of their investors’ patience.  Yet, there are social networking websites in Runet and they are rather blunt and creative in the way they are making money.  I have some degree of familiarity with two of them – Vkontakte.ru and Odnoklasniki.ru.

Vkontakte“, which is a blunt rip off Facebook, is rather mysterious.  It does not have any ads (but does have a lot of spam) and it is not clear at all how it is funded (to a degree that some conspiracy theories suggest that it is a government project aimed at spying on Russian citizens).  Yet, it seems to be the most popular social networking website in Russia these days.  Some suggest that it has cloned FB’s business model, but I could not see the exact parallel.  They do allow you to buy virtual gifts in Vkontakte, but I have not seen a single add.  The last fact actually attracted some English-speaking people who miss the old FB or cannot access it from work.

I find “Odnoklasniki” more interesting in the sense of monetizing on social sentiments of their users, even though it is not as popular as Vkontakte (and it probably appeals to a different demographic, but that is for another post).  To start with, they have a pretty horrible interface design.  FB (and as a derivation, Vkontakte) have done a significantly better job in making a useful and interesting website (or should I say “platform”?).  Odnoklasniki is very simple and not very intuitive, but apparently it works.  In addition to (supposedly contextualized) ads, Odnoklasniki is experimenting with making money off the very basic human needs that bring people to use their website in the first place.

For example, Odnoklasniki has a very different view of privacy and unlike FB, it always shows you who and when viewed your profile.  Yet, they understand that as much as we want to know who is looking at us, we don’t want others to know that we are looking at them.  So, if you would like to remain invisible as you visit other people’s profiles, they can offer you this service for just a little bit over US $4 a month.  Apparently it works!  You know that because even when an “invisible” user visits your profile, you still see that there was a visit, you just don’t know from whom.

Another example is the picture rating system they use on the website.  Odnoklasniki allows its users to rate other users’ pictures on a 1-5 scale.  This is of course another socially sensitive issue.  On the one hand, you would probably like to complement people you like by giving them the highest rating possible.  On the other hand, it is a social networking website, so it has a little bit of a beauty contest component to it.  In other words, you want your pictures to have high ratings, as this probably signifies popularity.

Odnoklasniki are using (or shall i say exploiting) both sentiments.  On the one hand, for a little bit over US $4 a month, you can get an ability to give out a 5+ mark to other people’s pictures (5+ vs. 5 is like A+ vs. A).  On the other hand, you can insure one picture at a time in your collection from getting low ratings.  When you apply this service, the system will automatically add 1 point to any rating below 5.  Surprisingly, this service is free, but it is “sponsored” by an insurance agency, which proudly advertises itself when you are trying to insure your pictures and I assume once you apply this insurance.

These are just a couple of examples and some of the serveices are rather new.  I don’t know how viable the business model of Odnoklasniki is, but I do find it fascinating that they are trying to monetize on the social aspects of these networks, which is why people people are using these domains in the first place.  What do you think?  Can/should FB think about other aspects of the platform they’ve developed?  Should they view it not just as an advertising platform?  Can/should they try making money out of it?