There’s a report on Techcrunch today about the announcement that Yandex is set to be the default search engine on Windows phones in Russia as a result of a partnership between Microsoft, Yandex and three handset manufacturers: Samsung, HTC and Nokia. So far so, so bog standard business news… Or at least that’s the impression you would get from the Techcrunch article which ends pretty much there (in essence it is just re-formatted press release).

That’s OK – they’re still reporting the news accurately and I’m not knocking that. But I would like to add that there is a rather worrying bigger implication in this announcement than simply one related to smartphone business in a few specific markets.

The problem with Yandex is that they have a somewhat dubious record of ‘interfering’ with results in a way that consistently does favours to the Kremlin. Very often these discrepancies will take the form of some high-profile opposition rally, event, or campaign – which is well covered online in blogs, images etc and thus ranks highly on results – but is nowhere to be seen on Yandex. The excuse has usually been that the omission is down to technical difficulties but, the more often this happens; the less convincing the excuse seems (more examples here and here).

The other problem is that Yandex is otherwise pretty good at Russian language searching and has over 60% market share in Russia, as well as a strong presence in Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Turkey totalling 56 million users worldwide. The latest announcements suggest that these numbers will only increase if they manage to establish a similar dominance in the smartphone market (although the prospects for Windows phone generally don’t look amazing so that might hold things back a bit).

The bottom line though is that Putin’s anti-democratic regime initially underestimated the power of the internet to undermine autocratic and repressive rulers. Instead they focused much more on censoring visual media – especially television. This was pretty effective as long as Russia’s internet connectivity rates were low – which is becoming less and less the case these days, a process accelerated by the advent of smartphones.

This has meant that now events like the 31st-of-the-month opposition rallies get a huge web presence and thus increase the visibility of the campaign, while Youtube music videos of pro-democracy songs are now regularly attracting over a million viewers very quickly (whereas as recently as 2008 or 2009 such figures would have been unimaginable). Events in the Arab world have probably furthered the sense that the internet now represents a much more real threat to repressive and autocratic regimes than before.

Now, there is one other search engine that comes to mind here: China’s Baidu, which effectively censors the internet for the benefit of the ruling regime, silencing any attempt at dissent, opposition, or even democratic activity. Google eventually backed out of that territory on ethical grounds (not wanting to be complicit in this censorship – and also probably concluding that they could afford to do so without it being that financially disastrous), but then Bing came in to try and lap up some of the slack by partnering up with Baidu to deliver English language results. And you know who owns Bing? That’s right – Microsoft, the same company behind Windows obviously, and also Windows Phone.

Why am I bringing this up? Because we know from Microsoft’s track record with Bing and Baidu that they will happily comply with even the most repressive regime to censor the internet if it means they can get a little slice of market share. That means that they are a perfect match for Yandex, who also seem to err away from the principle of a completely free internet, and thus that this potential expansion in market share (via the smartphone deal announced above) could also be evidence of Russia’s internet sliding slowly towards something which resembles the situation in China. That is not simply business news and nor is it something which should pass by unnoticed…

(p.s. If all this sounds a little hyperbolic to you, don’t forget that in some other parts of the world even using the Facebook ‘Like’ button can be a political act that might land you in jail…)