“Swiper-no-swiping” won’t cut it this time.

VKontakte is in the news again.

The Russian social media titan recently submitted a request to be omitted from a Special 301 Watch List of high piracy domains compiled by the US Trade Representative. In recent years, VKontakte has been identified as a “notorious market,” a label that has (unsurprisingly) been disputed by the site’s director Dmitry Sergeev.

In a letter to the USTR, Sergeev argues that despite VK’s high rates of music and other IP piracy, the website does not deserve its infamous reputation. To this end, Sergeev points to VK’s TOS agreement, which specifically stipulates that users may not upload copyrighted content and media they do not have the rights to. Sergeev also alleges that the VK’s high site traffic and sheer quantity of content are the principle reasons for its piratic ecosystem, stating that “VK does not have the technical capability to pre-moderate, filter, or otherwise prevent the uploading of works due to the enormous volume of information being uploaded by users on a daily basis.”

In VK’s defense, Sergeev cites DMCA claims that have already been handled by the site, noting that over 450,000 have been settled with only 60,000 rejections. Furthermore, he references the legitimate IP content available on VK using a list of popular celebrities (names like Shakira, Coldplay and Tiesto) with a presence on the site.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Post-Software

Image courtesy of Flickr user Post-Software


As compelling as Sergeev’s argument is (it isn’t), his defense doesn’t quite hold water when subjected to a comparative argument. In early 2012 Twitter publicized a list of its DMCA takedown notices received from late 2010 to 2011. For a platform with nearly 650 million registered users (dwarfing VK’s 240 million), this number is almost astonishingly low.Though Sergeev fails to provide a timeline regarding VK’s 450,000 DMCA claims, if twitter continued to receive claims at its 2010-2011 rate, it would take over 100 years to amass the pile of IP blunders that VK sits upon. Unfortunately DMCA statistics are not available for other popular social media portals (Instagram and Facebook have not publicized their claims), however, their omission from the USTR’s list would seem to indicate that, unlike VK, they are in fact not hubs for rampant IP piracy.

VK’s kleptomaniac environment was not created by the nature of the medium but by its users. Russia has always been a nation notorious for its flagrant piracy; following the downfall of the Soviet Union, western goods in Russia were often “unavailable at any price, much less at prices most Russians could afford.” The peoples’ response to this situation was to create pirate copies of these goods for mass distribution and enjoyment. As time progressed, this attitude of “why pay when I can have it for free” persisted and Russia now boasts a whopping 83% piracy rate.

I bring this up not because it excuses the ineffectiveness of VK’s anti-piracy measures but because it presents an interesting scenario regarding the interplay between society and social media. Oftentimes the primary focus seems to be on how social media is shaping culture; how people now use facebook/instagram/twitter/et cetera as a crutch to stave off interpersonal interaction and as such are dooming us all to a future of perpetual teenagers who come out of the womb with a smartphone in hand and a bent neck to match.

We seldom consider how our own cultural norms influence the development of social media because they are our cultural norms and we naturally take them for granted. VKontakte’s situation comes from outside our standard cultural sphere, and we are allowed a unique opportunity to see how a society with too many wants and too few rubles birthed a social media giant that allowed piracy to flourish.

It’s probably wise to remember that society and social media live on a two-way street.


Featured image courtesy of Flickr user Elias Bizannes


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