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Sources tell Forbes Russia that VK server expansion could herald YouTube ban

Andrey Rudkov / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Ever since the Russian authorities cracked down on independent news outlets, foreign social networks, and all manner of anti-government speech in the wake of their full-scale invasion of Ukraine, observers have been anticipating a ban on YouTube, one of the country’s most popular sites and a haven for anti-war content. More than a year later, Russians can still access the service freely, but according to sources from the country’s telecommunications industry who spoke to Forbes Russia, the homegrown social media site Vkontakte recently began expanding its network of servers — possibly in anticipation of a future YouTube ban. Here’s what we know.

Vkontakte (or VK), Russia’s largest social media site, is reportedly expanding its network of servers, or CDN (content delivery network). According to sources who spoke to Forbes Russia, the increase in server space will allow VK to withstand a spike in traffic if the Russian authorities ban YouTube.

VK first announced that it had begun deploying its own network of servers in 2021. Now, sources from the company told Forbes Russia, VK “consistently increases its traffic capacity, in part by expanding its server network” as it gains users. VK’s traffic more than doubled over 2022, while the number of registered users grew by nearly 20 percent.

According to Forbes Russia, the CDN expansion is a joint project between VK and Russian telecommunications providers. One industry source told journalists that VK has promised telecom companies that it will significantly increase its own traffic by poaching popular Russian-language bloggers from YouTube.

A source from one telecom company said that it’s possible VK is adding servers to its CDN as a preventative measure in case the Russian authorities block YouTube, which would inevitably cause the Russian social network’s traffic to surge. “If the task is to create an alternative to foreign services (which mostly refers to YouTube), then there’s only one service that can compete, and that’s VK,” another source said.

At the same time, the sources who spoke to Forbes Russia said they don’t know of any specific plans to block YouTube in Russia.

Speculations about a possible ban on YouTube in Russia first arose after the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, and grew after the Russian authorities banned Facebook and Instagram. Proponents of a ban have pointed to the numerous times the video-sharing site has blocked channels belonging to Russian state agencies and news outlets.

In January, Meduza learned from sources close to the Kremlin that Russia’s leaders hadn’t reached a definitive decision about whether to ban YouTube. According to the sources, Putin's first deputy chief of staff Alexey Gromov and many high-ranking security officials support the idea, while numerous members of the Russian government oppose it, as does the Putin administration’s political bloc led by Sergey Kiriyenko.

In February, a prosecutor in Vladimir demanded that YouTube be blocked by court order, but after the case attracted media attention, the request disappeared from the court’s website.

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