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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the Facebook Home launch event.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Until, that is, it starts to get annoying.

Facebook has definitely reached that point with some look- and act-alike sites outside of the U.S., according to Mark Zuckerberg. So much so, in fact, that it has hurt the company’s international growth prospects.

“Clones actually end up being a pretty big nuisance. People have made such great clones of Facebook outside the U.S., it made us harder to grow,” Zuckerberg said at the Y Combinator Startup School event over the weekend. Russia in particular, he pointed out, has done the best job of mimicking Facebook’s abilities.

“They’ve made such an awesome clone of Facebook it’s been hard to beat them,” he said. “It’s almost been 10 years since we started Facebook, and we still haven’t beaten them in Russia.”

Zuckerberg gave interesting reasons for the struggle. Besides the fact that the so-called “clones” were first to market in home countries like Russia, he said, many startups would make Facebook lookalikes and then introduce the sites to European countries. From there, Zuckerberg said, the first-movers would appreciate the network effects of viral growth, and make it that much more difficult for Facebook to grow.

One other thing: Some Facebook “clones,” like the ones in Russia, are also home to illegal file-upload hosting services, which makes it a more attractive proposition for those seeking free music and movies to pirate.

Indeed, if you compare Facebook’s quarterly European user-growth rate to other regions (like Asia, which also hosts stiff competition to Facebook with homegrown social sites), it has slowed quite a bit over the past year. Europe, in particular, is important to Facebook, as it is home to far more consumers with money to spend than, say, developing-world nations that are also slowly being introduced to Facebook.

In other words, it’s a big problem that Facebook needs to solve.

One solution? The “lockdown” approach, started in Facebook’s early days by Zuckerberg and co-founder Dustin Moskovitz – basically stopping just short of literally locking the employees inside the building until they come up with a way to fix a problem (though I imagine this isn’t kosher with OSHA).

Or there’s another approach: If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Facebook has cloned competing services in the past (Snapchat, Quora, Foursquare). Perhaps the company could take a few cues from what its foreign competitors are doing well.

islands 520x245 Yandexs Islands goes into beta, now providing feature rich search results in 3 countries

Last month, Russian Internet giant Yandex unveiled Islands, a feature that brings interactive snippets of content to its search engine, and now it has been released in beta across three countries.

The idea behind Islands is to provide a richer set of search results to give users more options and details relating to websites that show up. Islands initially launched in Turkey only, but it is available to users in Russia and Ukraine too.

The feature currently covers search, images, video and the main Yandex page, but that will expand to other services in time, the company says.

Essentially website managers can make their search results more compelling for users. For example, by providing options for a site that users can take advantage before they actually click through – like logging into a Russian Airlines account from the search results page.

yandex islands Yandexs Islands goes into beta, now providing feature rich search results in 3 countries

Yandex previously explained that there are different types of Islands, ranging from search snippets, which are basic descriptions that appear below each search result. Site links can also be added to allow users to navigate to specific pages. Finally, there are interactive snippets which present more advanced options, such as logging into accounts from the search results page.

The company says that Islands is available across all devices – computers, tablets and smartphones – though it will take a while to make its way to the company’s full set of core markets. Since it has a beta tag, we can expect more features and tweaks to come too.

Islands is another impressive piece of engineering from Yandex, which previously launched Shell – a Facebook Home-like launcher app for Android devices – and partnered with Opera to promote the Android ecosystem in Eastern Europe.

The company is the dominant search provider in many Eastern European markets, but it gained worldwide attention last year when it released Wonder, a voice-controlled search app for Facebook. Despite the positive reviews it was little wonder that Facebook cut the app’s access to its API, leading to its withdrawal from the App Store.

This week has been notable at Yandex for tragic reasons. Company co-founder and CTO Ilya Segalovich passed away on Thursday after losing his battle with cancer.

Headline image via Thinkstock

LGBT activists target brands including Stolichnaya and Russian Standard in response to ban on ‘gay propaganda’

There’s nothing more Russian than vodka, so when gay and lesbian activists decided to protest against the country’s persecution of homosexuals it made sense to target its most famous drink.

The US sex writer Dan Savage, famous for his online campaign against the homophobic senator Rick Santorum, called for a vodka boycott to draw attention to new laws allowing police officers to arrest tourists and foreign nationals they suspect of being homosexual or “pro-gay”.

“To show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people and straight allies in Vladimir Putin’s increasingly fascistic Russia: dump Russian vodka,” Savage wrote on his blog, He singled out the brands Stolichnaya and Russian Standard, coining the hashtag #DumpStoli for the campaign, which has been backed by Queer Nation and the Russian-American group Rusa LGBT.

Savage said attacks on LGBT people in Russia were escalating, and criticised the state for banning gay pride marches in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Six bars in Chicago announced they would stop selling Russian products, and a seventh bar said it had withdrawn Stolichnaya, according to Windy City Times, a Chicago LGBT newspaper.

The campaign seemed to have an instant success when the manufacturers of Stolichnaya criticised Russia’s record on lesbian and gay rights.

In an open letter published this week, Val Mendeleev, the head of the SPI group, condemned the Russian government for “limiting the rights of the LGBT community” and noted that the Russian state has no ownership or control of the brand, which is produced in Latvia.

On its Facebook page, the company posted a multicoloured banner reading: “Stolichnaya Premium Vodka stands strong and proud with the global LGBT community against the actions and beliefs of the Russian government.”

Stolichnaya, with its distinctive red-and-white label, was produced by the state in Soviet times and was reportedly the favourite vodka of Boris Yeltsin. After an attempt by the Russian state to regain the brand name in the 2000s, SPI Group, which is based in Luxembourg, has produced Stolichnaya in Latvia using Russian ingredients. Meanwhile, the state-owned Soyuzplodimport produces a nearly identical vodka in Russia.

Russia’s leading gay rights activist said the boycott was misguided.

“They mixed everything up. Stolichnaya isn’t Russian,” said the lawyer Nikolai Alekseev, head of the Moscow Pride organising committee.

“This is all good for attracting attention to the situation in Russia, like any other action, such as boycott of the Olympics, but it will not drastically change anything,” he added.

Unlike Stolichnaya, Russian Standard vodka is produced in Russia and is owned by the Russian oligarch Roustam Tariko. A spokesman for the company declined to comment.

In June Russia’s parliament unanimously passed a law banning the spreading of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors, prompting calls for other countries to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

The law in effect makes it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, and to distribute material on gay rights. It introduces fines for individuals and media groups found guilty of breaking the law, as well as special fines for foreigners. Four Dutch activists were charged in Murmansk this week under the law.

This is not Savage’s first controversial LGBT campaign: in 2003, he held a contest to create a definition for “santorum” after Santorum made comments critical of gay marriage. The new word was defined as “the frothy mixture of lube and faecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex”.

Reports this week claimed Snowden had applied for asylum in Russia because he feared torture if he was returned to US

The US has told the Russian government that it will not seek the death penalty for Edward Snowden should he be extradited, in an attempt to prevent Moscow from granting asylum to the former National Security Agency contractor.

In a letter sent this week, US attorney general Eric Holder told his Russian counterpart that the charges faced by Snowden do not carry the death penalty. Holder added that the US “would not seek the death penalty even if Mr Snowden were charged with additional, death penalty-eligible crimes”.

Holder said he had sent the letter, addressed to Alexander Vladimirovich, Russia’s minister of justice, in response to reports that Snowden had applied for temporary asylum in Russia “on the grounds that if he were returned to the United States, he would be tortured and would face the death penalty”.

“These claims are entirely without merit,” Holder said. In addition to his assurance that Snowden would not face capital punishment, the attorney general wrote: “Torture is unlawful in the United States.”

In the letter, released by the US Department of Justice on Friday, Holder added: “We believe that these assurances eliminate these asserted grounds for Mr Snowden’s claim that he should be treated as a refugee or granted asylum, temporary or otherwise.”

The US has been seeking Snowden’s extradition to face felony charges for leaking details of NSA surveillance programmes. There were authoritative reports on Wednesday that authorities in Moscow had granted Snowden permission to stay in Russia temporarily, but when Snowden’s lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, arrived to meet his client at Sheremetyevo airport, he said the papers were not yet ready.

Kucherena, who has close links to the Kremlin, said Snowden would stay in the airport’s transit zone, where he has been in limbo since arriving from Hong Kong on 23 June, for the near future.

The letter from Holder, and the apparent glitch in Snowden’s asylum application, suggest that Snowden’s fate is far from secure.

But a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin insisted Russia has not budged from its refusal to extradite Snowden. Asked by a reporter on Friday whether the government’s position had changed, Dmitry Peskov told Russian news agencies that “Russia has never extradited anyone and never will.” Putin has previously insisted Russia will not extradite Snowden to the US. There is no US-Russia extradition treaty.

Putin’s statement still leaves the Russian authorities room for manoeuvre, however, as Snowden is not technically on Russian soil.

Peskov said that Putin is not involved in reviewing Snowden’s application or involved in discussions about the whistleblower’s future with the US, though he said the Russian security service, the FSB, had been in touch with the FBI.

Speaking on Wednesday, Snowden’s lawyer said he was hoped to settle in Russia. “[Snowden] wants to find work in Russia, travel and somehow create a life for himself,” Kucherena told the television station Rossiya 24. He said Snowden had already begun learning Russian.

There is support among some Russian politicians for Snowden to be allowed to stay in the country. The speaker of the Russian parliament, Sergei Naryshkin, has said Snowden should be granted asylum to protect him from the death penalty.

The letter from Holder was designed to allay those fears and negate the grounds for which Snowden as allegedly applied for asylum in Russia. The attorney general said that if Snowden returned to the US he would “promptly be brought before a civilian court” and would receive “all the protections that United States law provides”.

“Any questioning of Mr Snowden could be conducted only with his consent: his participation would be entirely voluntary, and his legal counsel would be present should he wish it,” Holder said.

He added that despite Snowden’s passport being revoked he “remains a US citizen” and said the US would facilitate a direct return to the country.

Germany’s president, who helped expose the workings of East Germany’s Stasi secret police, waded into the row on Friday. President Joachim Gauck, whose role is largely symbolic, said whistleblowers such as Snowden deserved respect for defending freedom.

“The fear that our telephones or mails are recorded and stored by foreign intelligence services is a constraint on the feeling of freedom and then the danger grows that freedom itself is damaged,” Gauck said.

Rare sign of progress as foreign ministers meet Moaz al-Khatib for first time, but death toll in Syria continues to rise

The Russian and Iranian foreign ministers met the Syrian opposition leader, Moaz al-Khatib, for the first time on Saturday in a rare sign of diplomatic progress, but the bloodshed from the conflict continued to worsen, with nearly 5,000 people reported dead in January alone.

The latest death toll was reported by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a dissident group whose casualty estimates have been consistently confirmed by the UN. Its director, Sami Abdulrahman, said his researchers had recorded the deaths of 4,851 people in January, of whom 1,030 were members of the Syrian regular security forces while 3,305 were civilians or rebel irregulars.

It marks the second worst month of the 23-month conflict. Abdulrahman said the death toll appeared to reflect the widespread and intense nature of recent fighting and the regime’s heavy use of aerial bombardment of rebel-held areas.

At Munich, where a global security conference was held this weekend, there was some progress on the diplomatic front towards breaking a deadlock that has prevented a concerted international response to the conflict.

Khatib, the leader of Syria’s National Coalition opposition group, widely recognised in the west and the Arab world as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, met the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran, the Assad regime’s only major supporters on the world stage.

The opposition leaders also met the US vice president, Joseph Biden, and the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, at the margins of the Munich conference.

Following Khatib’s offer to hold preliminary talks with the regime, conditional upon the release of political prisoners, the discussions raised hopes that a way could be found around the stalemate in the UN security council.

After his meeting with the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, the Syrian opposition leader said: “Russia has a certain vision but we welcome negotiations to alleviate the crisis and there are lots of details that need to be discussed.”

The Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Iran would hold further meetings with Khatib and called for the formation of a joint transitional government from among members of the regime and the opposition under UN supervision leading to elections and a new constitution.

However, there was no sign of a breakthrough over the central sticking point that has divided the security council and prevented Syrian peace talks: the fate of Assad.

Lavrov told the Munich conference: “The persistence of those who say that priority number one is the removal of Assad is the single biggest reason for the continuing tragedy in Syria.”

Salehi was less specific. His prescription for a transition to democracy made no mention of Assad, but he asked: “If you ask for the government to stand down before negotiations, who do you negotiate with?”

On Saturday, Biden gave his full support to the opposition stance that Assad has so much blood on his hands that he could not be part of a transition government. Biden said the White House was “convinced that President Assad, a tyrant hell-bent on clinging to power, is no longer fit to lead Syrian people and he must go”.

Moscow has become increasingly isolated in its personal backing for Assad. Brahimi, the UN envoy, told the security council last week that the implication of an agreement of major powers last year in Geneva was that Assad should have no part in the transition process.

The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, ridiculed the idea that the Syrian leader should remain in power to oversee a transition.

“It’s easy to say the opposition should sit down with him now after 60,000 people have been killed,” Davutoglu said. “If they held an election in his presence who would guarantee the security of the opposition? There should be an election, but first someone should be [held] responsible for all the killing.”

The Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jaber al-Thani, said repeated attempts to organise talks between Assad and the opposition in the early months of the Syrian uprising had failed because of “the intransigence of the regime”.

“I have no doubt Assad will leave, because he cannot stay with so much blood on his hands,” he said. He also criticised Israel for its air strikes in Syria last week, which he said would “add fuel to the fire”.

In the first direct comment by an Israeli official on Tuesday’s air strikes, Ehud Barak, the outgoing defence minister and deputy prime minister, appeared to confirm widespread reports that it was targeted at anti-aircraft missiles bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“What happened in Syria several days ago … that’s proof that when we said something we mean it, we say that we don’t think it should be allowed to bring advanced weapons systems into Lebanon,” Barak told the Munich conference.

Bashar Assad said on Sunday that his military was capable of confronting any “aggression” that targeted the country, in his first remarks since the Israeli strike.

The Syrian Observatory’s estimate of the total number of dead from almost two years of conflict is 51,167. That is below the UN estimate of 60,000, but the Observatory’s methodology is more conservative, requiring confirmation of the names of the dead. Of that total, 3,717 of the war’s victims were children and 2,144 were women.

Russian prime minister suggests Syrian president’s days could be numbered, according to interview transcript

The Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, has said Bashar al-Assad’s chances of retaining power in Syria are getting “smaller and smaller” every day, according to the transcript of an interview with CNN released by Medvedev’s office.

His remarks were the most vocal Russian statement that Assad’s days could be numbered. But he reiterated calls for talks between the government and its foes and repeated Moscow’s position that Assad must not be pushed out by external forces.

“I think that with every day, every week and every month the chances of his preservation are getting smaller and smaller,” Medvedev was quoted as saying. “But I repeat, again, this must be decided by the Syrian people. Not Russia, not the United States, not any other country.

“The task for the United States, the Europeans and regional powers … is to sit the parties down for negotiations, and not just demand that Assad go and then be executed like [the late former Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi or be carried to court sessions on a stretcher like [Egypt’s] Hosni Mubarak.”

Russia has been Assad’s most important ally throughout the 22-month-old Syrian conflict, which began with peaceful street protests and evolved into an armed uprising against his rule.

Moscow has blocked three UN security council resolutions aimed at pushing him out or pressuring him to end the bloodshed, which has killed more than 60,000 people. But Russia has also distanced itself from Assad by saying it is not trying to prop him up and will not offer him asylum.

Medvedev made some of Russia’s harshest criticisms of Assad to date, placing equal blame for the escalation into a civil war on “the leadership of the country and the irreconcilable opposition”. He also said Assad was far too slow to implement promised political reforms.

“He should have done everything much faster, attracting part of the moderate opposition, which was ready to sit at the table with him, to his side,” Medvedev was quoted as saying. “This was his significant mistake, and possibly a fatal one.”

The wording of the interview suggested it was not just Assad’s grip on power that was under threat, but his life. Medvedev’s remark about the chances of his “preservation” diminishing came when he was asked whether Assad could survive.

Russia has repeatedly called on western and Arab nations to put more pressure on Assad’s foes to seek a negotiated solution, but Medvedev acknowledged that Moscow’s influence on the Syrian president was limited.

“I have personally called Assad several times and said: conduct reforms, hold negotiations,” said Medvedev, who was Russia’s president until last May. “In my view, unfortunately, the Syrian leadership is not ready for this.

“But on the other hand, by no means should a situation be allowed in which the current political elite is swept away by armed actions, because then the civil war will last for decades,” he said.

Russia has given frequent indications it is preparing for Assad’s possible exit, while continuing to insist he must not be forced out by foreign powers.

Russia sells arms to Syria and uses a naval facility on the Mediterranean coast that is its only military base outside the former Soviet Union.

But analysts say its policy is driven mainly by the desire of the president, Vladimir Putin, to prevent the United States from using military force or support from the UN security council to bring down governments it opposes.

Maria Alyokhina made the request because of ‘tensions with other inmates’, according to Russian prison service

The jailed Pussy Riot punk protester Maria Alyokhina has been moved to a single cell at her own request because of tensions with fellow prisoners, Russia’s prison service has said.

Alyokhina, 24, is serving a two-year sentence for carrying out a protest against the president, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow’s main Russian Orthodox cathedral. “Some tensions arose in relationships and, apparently, to prevent this situation from escalating, she decided to submit a request to the prison leadership and they moved her to a one-person cell,” a prison service spokeswoman said on Friday.

The spokeswoman dismissed Russian media reports that Alyokhina had been caught up in religious arguments with fellow prisoners. Pussy Riot’s protest offended many members of Russia’s Orthodox church.

The spokeswoman said she could not comment on a report on the Life News website that Alyokhina had received violent threats from cellmates at the Ural mountains prison about 715 miles (1,150km) north-east of Moscow.

Alyokhina and her two bandmates and were convicted in August of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for their “punk prayer”, which the dominant Russian Orthodox church has cast as part of a concerted attack on the church and its followers.

The women said the protest, in which they burst into Christ the Saviour cathedral and called on the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Putin, was not motivated by hatred and was meant to mock the church leadership’s support for the longtime leader.

Putin, a former KGB officer who has cultivated close ties with the church over 13 years in power, has rejected criticism from the US and European leaders who called the two-year sentences disproportionate.

Alyokhina, who has a young son, argued with the judge and cross-examined witnesses during her trial.

Her bandmate Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 23, is serving her sentence in a different prison. Yekaterina Samutsevich, 30, was freed last month when a court suspended her sentence on appeal.

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