As the internet becomes more central to our lives, the question grows more urgent: who owns it? OCCRP, in partnership with RISE Project and EurActiv.ro, set out to find out in the Internet Ownership Project.
Funded by the Knight Foundation and The Black Sea Trust, the project examines the gatekeepers of information and communication technology infrastructure across Eastern Europe, finding a few idealistic netizens amid a lot of murky offshores and big-money companies.
“The battle for the internet is on in Central and Eastern Europe. This project is a first in exposing the owners of internet infrastructure across the region,” said OCCRP executive director Paul Radu. “Our reporters worked hard for the past year to unearth very complicated and sometimes obscure ownership structures.”
Tackling issues of transparency and privacy, the stories hold governments and companies accountable to the citizens of each country. Journalists from the Czech Republic to Armenia reveal who controls access to information, and whether those controlling companies are connected to political parties, public officials or organized crime.
They explore telecom companies, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), cable operators and investigate the licensing authorities and public regulatory bodies across 12 countries: Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia, Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, and Slovenia.
In Moldova, the largest ISP, Moldtelecom, is wholly-state owned with a 60 to 65 percent market share. The company’s ex-general manager is now Vice-Minister of the Economy, Vitalie Iurcu, a member of Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc’s business association.
Slovenia’s largest ISP, Telekom Slovenije, remains state-owned for “national security reasons” despite three attempts at privatization.
Serbia is a legal gray zone for data protection. State authorities can get usernames and passwords to access ISPs’ internal systems, allowing them to access retained data at any time. It is unknown how many people use these accounts or whether every access is based on a court order.
In the Czech Republic, heavy on Internet traffic and with an extensive network of fiber-optic cables, the location and entry-points of international data cables still remain unmapped and “classified” for allegedly strategic reasons.
Ukraine’s largest telecom company, Ukrtelecom, is controlled by the country’s wealthiest businessman Rinat Akhmetov, once mentioned by police as the leader of an organized crime gang. Kyivstar, the country’s largest ISP, is 47 percent owned by Russia’s Alfa Group. Moreover, several of Ukraine’s fiber optic cable companies are owned or controlled by politicians with questionable records.
In Armenia, the country’s largest telecom, ArmenTel, is controlled by three Russian businessmen—Mikhail Fridman, German Khan, and Alexey Kuzmichev—via LetterOne Holdings, VimpelCom’s majority shareholder. In fact, Russian companies control most of Armenia’s telecommunications sector. ArmenTel faced a major money-laundering scandal in 2014 were over US$ 500 million meant for international calls to Armenia via ArmenTel vanished between 2009 and 2012. ArmenTel’s former director, Igor Klimko, the prime suspect, also vanished only to reappear in Moscow, unlikely to be extradited.
In Bulgaria, journalists stopped a Russian-Bulgarian businessman, Pierre Louvrier, from taking over Vivacom, the country’s biggest telecom. Louvrier is in business with sanctioned Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, allegedly one of Putin’s cronies financing pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine.
Romania’s largest ISP, RCS-RDS, is controlled by Zoltan Teszari, an enigmatic Romanian businessman from Oradea whose ability to evade scrutiny earned him the nickname “the anonymous billionaire.” Moreover, some Romanian ISPs have ended up in court for accusations of fraud, bribery, provision of false documents, illegal appropriation of state lands and mismanagement of public funds.
Hrvatski Telekom controls about three-quarters of the broadband market in Croatia and owns the largest copper cable network in the country.
- János Lázár, the Hungarian Minister in Charge of the Prime Minister’s Office, reportedly demanded Deutsche Telekomrein in or sell its media outlets during government talks with the telecom giant in 2014.