The initial reporting on the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs’ call to ban Skype and other VOIP services focused on the Union’s statement that these services were a threat to Russian security because they couldn’t be tapped. More thorough follow-up reporting makes it clear, however, that this line was primarily intended to entice the government into protecting incumbent telecom operators from competition:
At a meeting of the lobby this week, telecom executives portrayed the most popular VoIP programs like Skype and Icq as encroaching foreign entities that the government must control.
“Without government restrictions, IP telephony causes certain concerns about security,” the lobby’s press release said. “Most of the service operators working in Russia, such as Skype and Icq, are foreign. It is therefore necessary to protect the native companies in this sector and so forth.”
. . . .
In a presentation posted on the lobby’s Web site, Vice President of TTK, a telecoms unit of state-owned Russian Railways, Vitaly Kotov, called on regulators to stop VoIP services from causing “a likely and uncontrolled fall in profits for the core telecom operators.”
Valery Ermakov, deputy head of Russia’s No.3 mobile phone firm MegaFon, drove the point home with a picture of two hands in handcuffs, the caption running, “protect investments and fight VoIP services.”
Delegates at the meeting also warned that it has been impossible for police to spy on VoIP conversations, Vedomosti business daily reported on Friday.
The lobby, called the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, forecast that 40 percent of calls could be made through VoIP services by 2012.
As an alternative to Skype and its peers, the telecom executives proposed creating VoIP services inside their own firms, which would then make them safely available to the Russian public.
“MegaFon is interested in this market. We’re interested in providing analogous services. We don’t support limiting competition, but we want the market to be civilized,” Ermakov said.
TTK’s press service said on Friday that it will take until September for the relevant legal amendments to be drafted by the special committee, whose members include top telecoms executives and lawmakers from Putin’s United Russia party. [Emphasis added.]
Yes, Russia is renowned for its civilized markets. What a hoot.
In some respects, though, there is something refreshing about the in-your-face honesty of these remarks. In the US, companies seeking some special favor are more likely to use smarmy flacks and slick PR campaigns intended to gull people into believing that these favors are Good For America. The ads that ADM runs during Sunday news gabfests are classics in the genre. You wouldn’t know that ADM makes gobs of money off of you and me through ethanol subsidies, etc.
This contrast is probably a testament to the substantial difference in the impact of public opinion on public policy between Russia and the US. For the most part, the government and the connected can ignore an atomized and apathetic Russian populace, and have relatively frank and open negotiations for quid and quo. In the US, however, such deals–which occur, alas, all too frequently–must be negotiated more discretely, with opposition defused and support built through PR.