Sputnik Relaunched as Kremlin’s ‘Safe’ Alternative to Google

Sixty years ago, the Soviet Union embarked on its Sputnik project, setting off a race with the U.S. to conquer space. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is using a new Sputnik to challenge U.S. leadership in an entirely different field: Internet search.

OAO Rostelecom, Russia’s state-run telecommunications operator, today unveiled what it bills as a “safe search” engine called Sputnik. The service offers results with approved links as well as official information on topics such as finding the cheapest medicine in town or applying for a passport.

The Sputnik website will have a news section and several TV channels, Rostelecom said. “We’ve indexed over 10 billion documents on the Russian Internet, picking the most reliable, full and official sources of information,” the company said in a statement.

The company presented Sputnik at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, a Putin-sponsored alternative to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. This year’s gathering has been overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine, with the Obama administration urging American executives not to attend.

Rostelecom won’t force customers to use Sputnik, its press office said. Still, being the largest fixed-line Internet provider in Russia, the Moscow-based company can promote the service widely. The company has 10.6 million broadband subscribers and this month won a government deal to provide Internet service to 13,600 small towns.

War Coverage

The idea of a state-sponsored search engine emerged in 2008 when the Kremlin was disappointed by Internet coverage of Russia’s war with Georgia, Ilya Ponomarev, a lawmaker with the pro-Kremlin Just Russia party, said by phone. News aggregators on search engines Yandex and Google showed pro-Georgian news on top, he said.

That has become less relevant, Ponomarev said, as the government has started using bots, or special programs that can bring approved stories closer to the top of results pages. Still, the idea of Sputnik survived, though it’s now run by Rostelecom rather than the Communications Ministry.

Yandex NV, Russia’s top search engine with 62 percent of the market and its stock traded on the Nasdaq in the U.S., said Russians can choose the service they use.

The Russian press office of Google Inc., which has 28 percent of the market in the country, according to researcher LiveInternet, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.