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Russia's Internet Guru : Anton Nossik
Anton Nossik :Russian Internet Wonder Boy

He has been called the ?Guru? of Russian Internet. At 34, Anton Nossik has been involved in most of the important Russian Internet projects in the past five years. His ICQ nickname is ?Emigrant?, because several years ago he immigrated to Israel, before returning to Russia. He is an online news service editor , a consultant, and a strategist. And when people want to know about the past, present and future of the Russian Internet, people ask him first.

How much influence you have over the Russian Internet?

I have as much influence over the Russian Internet, as any other manager whose projects belong to the top 20 of Russia's most visited sites. Which means I do set some standards for Russian online media, and in the same time I'm following standards set by others in such fields as online advertising, website promotion and design. There are many people and many companies working over Russian content projects these days, no one has a monopoly.

Please compare the Russian Web of five years ago, when you started 'Evening Internet', with the Russian Internet nowadays.

Well, five years ago there was basically no such thing as Russian Internet. There was no single and generally accepted standard for Russian characters' representation on the WWW, therefore Russian-speakers were mostly setting up websites in English (or transliterating Russian to Roman characters which was quite a nuisance). The situation changed when the official release of Windows 95 promoted the Microsoft standard for Russian encoding, named CP1251, or Windows Cyrillic. As the acceptance of Windows 95 grew, there came a possibility to write Russian texts in Russian. But as a matter of fact, most Russian Web servers still offer their content in five encodings (Windows, UNIX, DOS, MAC and transliteration) on different ports.

As for the demographic changes - they matched the global patterns with much exactitude. While Russian online audience grew from 100.000 to one million (i.e. between 1996 and 1998), there were mostly computer specialists online, 85 percent of them male, and the average age was somewhere between 18 and 25. Nowadays with 3 million users online in Russia alone, women account for some 45 percent of users, the average age is nearing 30, and all sorts of professionals are represented - academics, journalists, IT and financial managers, government clerks, entrepreneurs, students and schoolchildren.

Some estimates indicate 3 million Web users in Russia. Other sources indicate 4 million users.

The figure named by most local pollsters is something close to 3 million by the end of 2000. But their surveys are confined to urban areas of Russia. And that might be no more than 45-60% of the overall Russian-speaking Web audience. First, you've got the ex-USSR states, with the Baltics [Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania], Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia and Kazakhstan, all embracing the Net to some extent. More important, you've got US and Canada, Germany and Israel, where millions of Russian speakers live, and the penetration of the Net in these countries is much greater than in Russia and xSU. This audience could be anything around 1.5 million users, and it could reach 2.5 million in the nearest future.

Can you make a projection about the growing of the Russian Internet population in the coming years?

I think that 10 million within Russia is the limit for the next five years, but some researchers are talking about 25 million users by 2005. I find this estimate rather hard to believe. Russia will not have 25 million computers by that time, let alone Internet users.

You said in an interview that nowadays the Internet in Russia is totally independent from politics. Can you elaborate on that? What do you mean?

When you want to run a TV station or a radio broadcast in Russia, it's not only that you have to be awfully rich. You also have to use some serious connections to obtain all necessary licenses and permissions for broadcasting. Which means you should be somehow vested in the local political system, at least on a regional level. To set up a website, visited by hundreds of thousands, you need neither tremendous amounts of money, nor serious political connections. That's why Internet sites do not require politicians' support or permission to operate. Hence, they can afford to be independent from local authorities on both federal and regional level.

Do you think publishing electoral news during the 1999 scrutiny influenced the outcome of the Russian elections?

I don't believe exit polls can influence voters' behavior in one specific and predictable direction. I believe, that even if such an influence does exist, it works both ways. Some people will read the exit polls and say: my candidate loses, he needs my help. Others, upon reading same data, will say: my candidate has lost anyway, why bother voting. Therefore there should not be any trace of direct influence on elections' outcome, whenever exit polls get leaked on Election Day. In fact, there isn't.

What can you say about the efforts of the government to take more control over the media? Does it have a chance to put a leash onto the Internet?

To put a leash - I doubt it. They can either strangle it, or let it be as it is. If some restrictions are applied to websites operating from Russia, the same websites will start operating from abroad. Therefore, if the authorities once get keen on restricting free information exchange, they'll have to follow the Iraqi model, sealing national backbones. I'm not sure that will work with satellite technology, but all privately-owned satellite Internet systems in Russia do work one way - providing only downstream. If the uplink is cut off, they won't help.

Le Monde says you are an influential consultant, and have a say in the future directions of the Net in Russia. How do you see the Internet evolving in the coming years in Russia?

I think that there will be more users, and more Internet-related jobs, and more spending on online ads, but in general until 2005 that will only change lives of those 10 million people who will be online by that time. The remaining 140 million of Russia's population will hardly notice. As They don't notice such things as computers in general, DVD or satellite TV.

How is the Russian Internet bridging the technological gap between Russia and the US? Will Russia ever catch up?

Russia will not catch up with the US in the foreseeable future, and that's not the objective. If Russia manages to catch up with India in such indicators as offshore programming revenues, that will already increase our GNP and exports dramatically, producing a qualitative change in national economy. Russia's national income can be increased twofold over the next 5 years, if someone only cared to depart from the petroleum-based macroeconomic models of thinking and planning.