Yuri Zhirkov, a football player currently playing for Zenit Saint Petersburg, organized a huge celebration for his wife Inna's birthday and didn't notice a photographer who took a picture at the most inappropriate moment when Yuri handed a hookah mouthpiece to his young children, a girl and a boy. The photos subtitled "Zhirkov and his kids smoking a hookah" appeared in numerous tabloids and firmly ingrained the top search results of Google and Yandex. The scandal did not only affect the football player, but also his namesake, Yevgeny Zhirkov, then-mayor of Balashikha. "Some people confused him with Zhirkov the football player and said that they read about him on the Internet," Dmitry Sidorin says. He is the founder of Sidorin Lab, an Internet agency that specializes in website promotion and reputation management on the Internet. "Naturally, he would have preferred to delete this information, but he cannot."
It's possible that soon both Zhirkov the football player and Zhirkov the public servant will get a new tool for purging the Internet. Deputies Alexey Kazakov, Vadim Dengin, Olga Kazakova, and Leonid Kalashnikov sponsored a bill regarding "the right to oblivion", suggesting to introduce changes to the data protection law, the Civil Code, and Administrative Offences Code that will allow Russian citizens to demand that the search engines stop providing links to inaccurate or outdated information or the one that's being distributed in violation of the law. Moreover, the deputies suggested to fine the search engines if they refuse to delete the links.
Yandex, the largest Russian search engine, made a firm stand against the proposed law arguing that it violates the constitutional right of the population to search information and have access to it, while paving the way for extensive misuse.
However, this law can become an additional income tool for companies that specialize in business intelligence and reputation management.
"We'll get leverage that will block inaccurate information much faster and more efficiently," Ilya Sachkov, head of Group-IB, underlines. "What matters is that this law doesn't turn to be a tool enabling censorship and purging the Internet of unfavorable articles and historical facts."
Purging and Whitening
In the summer of 2013, PR-managers of Viktor Yanukovych, the then-president of Ukraine, addressed one of the largest Russian reputation management companies. "They offered us to purge the Internet of all the negative info regarding their boss, but we refused to do it, saying that the 'product was faulty': there's no point in working on the reputation if he tarnishes it on a daily basis", a well-known Russian entrepreneur says in an interview with Forbes. Soon enough, he was addressed again with a similar request by the representatives of Yulia Tymoshenko, but he refused once more.
Internet agencies providing SERM (Search Engine Reputation Management) services are usually approached by those who don't want their names, when typed into a search engine, to be completed with such words as 'corruption', 'prison time', or 'rookie', and wish to eliminate the links to websites containing incriminating information, photos, and videos from top search results.
"The law developed by the deputies of the State Duma seems to be beneficial for civil servants, deputies, oligarchs, and celebrities as it will allow them to try and hide the information regarding the unflattering facts of their biographies," Mikhail Savelyev, director of the educational center "Informzashita" notes. He recalls the notorious scandal concerning the grandson of the Far Eastern billionaire Igor Neklyudov named Grigoriy who published outrageous videos on YouTube where he offered the visitors of Gorky Park to do humiliating things for money. "If this guy ends up in politics or becomes a serious businessman in a few years, such an 'oblivion law' would do him a favor," Savelyev states.
Unlike people, search engines have great memory.
Yandex, the most popular website in Russia, 'sees' 15 billion html documents, Google has access to 30 billion. First, the desire to manipulate search results was based on commercial requests, for example, a company selling plastic windows wanted to have its online shop on the first page of search results. This is how the SEO (Search Engine Optimization) market emerged. Its main purpose is making a website rank as high as possible in the results when certain keywords are researched. According to the estimates of RAEC and HSE, this market comprises over 10 billion rubles a year.
The reputation management market (SERM) is smaller, it comprises 10% of the SEO market according to Sidorin. The main customers of Sidorin Lab are politicians, businesspeople, athletes, and celebrities. He revealed that Georgy Smoleyevsky, Southern Moscow district prefect, tried to find out after his resignation whether there had been a campaign launched against him, "He said that he had closed down so many illegal markets, opened parks... He had a PR-manager, but she couldn't provide a sufficient coverage of the target audience, there was no alternative positive background on the Internet. We checked the graphs and we could clearly see when the information peaked, it was dwelling on the bribe that his vice took, on the words of another politician saying Smoleyevsky should retire, then there was Biryulyovo, and bam - resignation. That's how reputation goes notorious." The performance of civil servants is also assessed based on the frequency of positive and negative mentioning on the Internet.
Here's another example from Sidorin's experience, a client couldn't get a role in serious TV series because she used to be a participant of a low-quality reality show and the search engines kept all that information. "She wanted it to disappear," Sidorin shares. The new law would come in handy for such clients.
How can one delete the information these days? "Nothing is deleted from the search engines," Asya Melkumova, a representative of Yandex says. In 2013, a picture subtitled 'Putin chokes Russia like a snake' disappeared from search results, and Melkumova explains that the link leading to a particular content automatically disappears from search results if the content has been blocked, deleted from the source website, or if access to such a website has been blocked.
"Usually, the 'purge' can be done in two ways, either the information is deleted from the web-source, or the informational background is being packed with so much fake info noise that it becomes hard to find the original unfavorable publication," Savelyev from 'Informzashita' explains.
Reputation management specialists note that it's easier to reduce the coverage of the negative link. It disappears from the top search results of Yandex, and since an average person hardly goes beyond the first page of results, he or she won't see it. "It's impossible to delete information from many resources, which is why the main mechanism is displacing negative messages by positive ones, by huge amounts of positive information," Sidorin says.
Typically, public figures pay $2,000-5,000 per month for reputation management services according to Sidorin. The price of a service is deduced based on the number of search requests and the number of regions (search results differ based on the geolocation); moreover, the service has to be provided continuously until the results are visible.
Group-IB features a subdivision called Brand Point Protection that specializes both in the reputation management of brands (for example, it worked with Amedia, the company that represents the interests of HBO, CBS, and FOX, in Russia, when Sony blocked 60,000 links to their TV series and films) and individuals (the company does not disclose the information on its clients). Ilya Sachkov says that the average reputation management budget is RUB 300,000 per month. He believes that the right to be forgotten is necessary if the information endangers the safety of a person; last year, he encountered such a situation himself. A person with no profile picture using James Bond as a username wrote a message to Sachkov on the social media, it said, "I have your home address, the address of your mother and your brothers... This is just for you to know it, so that you always look behind your back." The message included an excerpt from a police database with the registered address of Sachkov and his relatives, his license plate, information on his offences. "I wish this information were removed from the Internet, not just blocked through 'black lists', but actually deleted and never indexed again," Sachkov says. According to him, the Law on Personal Data Protection doesn't work, the police doesn't do anything.
There's a whole industry of cybercrimes, it involves stealing data from iCloud, personal emails, and social media, and blackmailing people, threatening to publish incriminating information online. "There's a whole industry related to dating services. People think they are talking to good-looking boys and girls and send nude photographs and videos to them, which later end up on the Internet," Sachkov says. "Deleting all such data is very difficult, and the majority of the population doesn't know about such frauds, it's easy to fool them."
Savelyev underlines that the majority of Russians share their personal information and intimate photos out of free will, but the right to be forgotten can be useful if it's necessary to protect the information on criminal court judges and their relatives, for example.
Bypassing the Law
Nevertheless, all the experts interviewed by Forbes note that the bill draft is rather raw and features many shortcomings. Search engines criticize it the most. Yandex specialists state that the law supposes deleting even those links that contain accurate information that remains on websites and on the Internet and can be shared by other means, for example, through the social media. Moreover, the draft does not suggest deleting particular links, it basically forces search engine operators personally look for the data on citizens; the law doesn't demand that the applicant has to specify the link he or she would like to be deleted. "It will require preliminary moderation of the search service," Yandex specialists state.
If the law is accepted, access to a large amount of publicly relevant information may be hampered. In addition, owners of the websites involved won't be able to litigate the deletion of the links from search engines, which will lead to the abuse of this right by competitors and other entities according to Yandex.
Igor Ashmanov, founder of "Ashmanov and Partners" is sure that this is a populist law and it won't work. He compares purging the Internet to fighting piracy. It cannot be fully defeated, but it's possible to remove all pirate editions from the market. Ashmanov believes that search engines can make it look like they deleted something as the links won't be visible, but in fact, no data is forgotten on the Internet. "Large companies can be forced to control what they provide Russian citizens with upon requests, but nobody has prohibited VPNs, anonymizers, TOR, and other similar means of dodging filters of the kind," Savelyev reminds.
Experts believe that Russians will quickly learn to get around search engine bans.
"Analytical" websites might emerge, they will collect and accumulate different information, and it is possible that analytical companies will start providing analytics on particular persons. "This law will also benefit the companies that specialize in business intelligence. It is likely that there will be the service of digging up information on persons in question from the depths of the Internet," Savelyev thinks.
Specialists from Yandex hope that the lawmakers will discuss the opinion of the Internet community on the matter. "I hope that the law won't be accepted until there's a detailed picture of the matter, of what to do in all possible cases, or it might become either a useless non-working paper, or a potential profit tool for corrupt officials," Savelyev underlines. Sachkov is sure that the right to be forgotten cannot be added to the law without a prior discussion with legal advisers and the Internet community. "Ideally, there should be a unified international law allowing to purge the Internet," Sachkov says, "Or none of this will have the technical effect, as the information will remain in foreign search engines and in the dark net."