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Ukraine: Critics Say Draft Law Poses Threat To Freedom Of The Internet

  • Askold Krushelnycky

A draft law introduced in the Ukrainian parliament this week is further evidence, say critics, that the government wants to control access to the Internet. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports on opposition fears and speaks to an expert who explains the techniques used by governments to limit Internet use.

Prague, 21 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A majority in the Ukrainian parliament on 18 November passed the first reading of a draft law that some fear is aimed at muzzling independent news available on the Internet.

The law forbids the publication, including on the Internet, of anything that promotes terrorism, the overthrow of the state, or pornography, or that discriminates against or damages an individual's reputation.

The draft law comes the month after a court ruled that control of the Internet in Ukraine should be taken from a private company, Hostmaster, and handed to an agency formed jointly by the Ukrainian Security services (SBU) and the state Communications Committee.

The Internet is one of the last remaining sources of independent information in Ukraine and has published some of the most damaging allegations against the government of President Leonid Kuchma over the past three years.

Serhiy Lyschenko is the deputy editor of "Ukrayinska Pravda," the country's foremost opposition Internet newspaper. Lyschenko believes the government wants to neutralize hostile Internet information sites ahead of next year's presidential elections.

Commenting on whether the draft law has a purpose other than to combat crime and terrorism, Lyschenko says: "That is probably only known to those who submitted this draft law but, from another point of view, it can undoubtedly be used against Internet publications."

He believes the clause about damaging someone's reputation can be interpreted very broadly: "The phrasing of this draft law is very unspecific. Therefore, if someone wants to, they can, for example, say that an article by [Kuchma's former bodyguard Mykola] Melnychenko harms the reputation of President Kuchma and therefore sanctions incorporated in the law can be invoked [against us]."

Ivan Lozowy is the director of an independent think tank based in Ukraine, the Institute for Statehood and Democracy. Lozowy is convinced the government wants to control the Internet in Ukraine to silence its critics: "Without a doubt, it's a threat to freedom of speech and to democracy in Ukraine because, firstly, it's necessary to observe that Ukraine's intelligence services do not adhere to the law. Therefore, opening the door just a little way to allow the SBU to deal with the Internet will lead to them doing whatever they want."

Lozowy says there is no need for further state control of the Internet in Ukraine. He notes present legislation allows the SBU to get permission from courts to monitor Internet or phone communications if they show there are grounds for suspecting that criminals or terrorists are using them.

He says the official explanation that the law is necessary to combat organized crime and terrorism is just a pretext: "Although the text of the law doesn't sound very dangerous, unfortunately, in Ukraine, the best laws are transformed into the worst possible thing in practice."

He also believes the real reason for the law will become clear as the presidential campaign picks up pace: "Those Internet publications which publish opposition points of view will be closed or will be difficult to access."

The Internet holds the promise that people all over the world can communicate freely and receive information without fear of censorship. But as RFE/RL's Internet expert, Rich Malak, says, many governments do not share that ideal and put a lot of effort into trying to control the Internet: "It's quite easy for a government, if they're willing to put a lot of resources into it, to control access to the Internet within the country."

China has put the greatest resources into trying to control access to the Internet, which it sees as a dangerous instrument of political dissent. Other authoritarian countries like Belarus have also tried to curb access to the Internet using technical and other means.

The independent Human Rights Watch says China forced one of the world's largest Internet outfits to voluntarily block some information the Chinese government objected to in return for the right to operate in China.

But Malak says the most common way to attack free Internet traffic is to use technical means. Many of these were originally developed to protect computer systems from damaging digital viruses but are now exploited by censors. Controls using electronic filters can be applied to Internet "providers" within the country -- the setups that facilitate communication between a computer user and the websites.

"Countries -- for example, like China or Belarus -- they restrict the Internet service providers who set up connections to the Internet in the countries and so therefore they effectively control everything about the Internet because everybody has to get Internet through those providers. So, for example, in China there are 30,000 people employed by the government who just work on finding websites which are against the government and work on putting them into filtering systems so people cannot get to those websites within the country. And when they try to go to those websites, they are given a simple web page that tells them they were trying to access an illegal site and if they continue to try to do it they can be prosecuted," Malak says.

Information providers play a cat-and-mouse game with censorship authorities. Malak says the fate of the Internet in Ukraine depends on how much effort that country's government puts into trying to control it: "The easiest way to keep your Internet site working in a country that is only moderately dedicated to blocking is to move it out of the country."

Ukrainian Internet journalist Lyschenko says his publication, "Ukrayinska Pravda," has contingency plans in case the government tries to hamper its work: "'Ukrayinska Pravda' is a mirror that exists beyond Ukraine's frontiers, so that if there is a danger, we can work in the West. That [does] mean that the website address will be moved. In case of serious attempts to hinder us, there is danger, but there are ways to circumvent this."

The Ukrainian measure will become law if a majority approves it on the second reading -- normally held within three months.

Lyschenko says Internet journalists are certain that many lawmakers who voted in favor of the draft law at its first reading were not aware of its implications. They plan to lobby legislators to eliminate portions of the law potentially harmful to the freedom of the Internet before the next reading.