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Public Sharply Divided Over Ukraine's Ban On Russian Social Networks


KYIV -- Censorship and a blow to freedom of expression, or a long-overdue move in defense of national security?

President Petro Poroshenko's blanket ban in Ukraine on several Russian Internet services, including leading Russian-language social networks and a popular search engine, has struck a chord -- or a nerve, depending on who you ask.

The ban, based on recommendations of the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) put forth in April and issued on May 16 by presidential decree, immediately triggered a wave of criticism from human rights groups and journalists who claimed it was undemocratic.

Meanwhile, many Ukrainians -- particularly from the government and security apparatuses -- heralded it as a long overdue step to combat Russian instruments of information warfare amid a bloody shooting war with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Specifically, the decree orders Internet service providers (ISPs) to block public access for three years to the Mail.ru group and its social-networking sites, VK (formerly VKontakte) and Odnoklassniki -- the top two in Ukraine.

At least 78 percent of Internet users in Ukraine, or some 20 million people, reportedly had a VK account as of late April. The Mail.Ru group is controlled by Kremlin-friendly oligarch Alisher Usmanov.

The decree also orders a block on the popular Russian search engine Yandex and its various services.

It brings the total of sanctioned physical and legal entities to 468 companies, most of them Russian, and 1,228 individuals in connection with what Poroshenko called via his own VK page Russia's "hybrid warfare" against Ukraine, including its seizure of Crimea in March 2014 and its role in a conflict in the country's east that has killed more than 9,900 people.

In signing the decree, Poroshenko promised to close his own VK page, where he has more than 466,000 followers. (The page was still up at the time of publication.)

Cynical Or Long Overdue?

Blistering criticism of the president's move came fast and hot.

"This is yet another example of the ease with which President Poroshenko unjustifiably tries to control public discourse in Ukraine," said Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). "Poroshenko may try to justify this latest step, but it is a cynical, politically expedient attack on the right to information affecting millions of Ukrainians, and their personal and professional lives."

Some critics drew comparisons to Internet restrictions imposed by China, Iran, and Turkey.

The "Erdoganization of Poroshenko is here" former journalist-turned-lawmaker Serhiy Leshchenko tweeted in an ominous reference to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's crackdown on that country's press and academia after a failed coup in July 2016.

Serhiy Petrenko, the former head of Yandex Ukraine, wrote this especially scathing indictment of Poroshenko's decree on his blog: "I'll be brief. Everyone who had a hand in this decree, including the person who signed it, are f***ing idiots."

The decree's supporters were no less enthusiastic, with many, like Ukrainian political consultant Taras Kuzio, saying the move was "long overdue."

"On the territory of Crimea and in the Russian Federation, Roskomnadzor blocked all our information resources, in particular, Free Crimea," Ukrainian political analyst Taras Berezovets wrote on Facebook, referring to a nonprofit project that monitors activities of Russian authorities on the annexed Crimean Peninsula. "Russians constantly write letters demanding to ban materials from our sites to our German [service] providers. So don't be surprised that for me this is a day of personal victory. Vendetta is such a sweet word, I'll tell you."

In justifying the ban, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) said in a statement that "Russian security agencies are waging a hybrid war against the Ukrainian population, using in their special information operations Internet resources such as VK, Odnoklassniki, Mail.ru, and so on."

Andrei Soldatov, a Russian cybersecurity expert, told RFE/RL that "it is true that VK is extremely intrusive and known to be cooperative with the FSB," a reference to Russia's Federal Security Service and main successor to the KGB. But he argued that most Ukrainian users "cannot pose a security risk" as ordinary citizens "have no access to secrets."

Rather than risk public outrage, Soldatov said, Ukraine could have limited usage of those sites to military and officials with security clearances. Another option, he said without endorsing it, would have been to take a page from Russia's playbook and require the sites to store Ukrainians' personal data on Ukrainian soil.

But How To Ban?

At the time of publication, all of the banned sites were still accessible in Ukraine.

Ukraine had no legal mechanism in place for blocking the Internet resources listed in the ban when Poroshenko signed the decree, according to an SBU statement, leaving it and other law enforcement agencies scrambling to recommend the necessary changes in Ukrainian law.

Mykhaylo Chaplyhya from the Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsperson's Secretariat told the UNIAN news agency that no website may be blocked in Ukraine without a court order.

Failure to comply with the order may result in fines equal to 100-200 tax-free minimum incomes of citizens, according a statement published on the site of the National Commission for the State Regulation of Communications and Informatics.

Some ISPs, including Ukraine's largest fixed-line operator, Urktelecom, said on May 17 that they had already begun to implement the ban, according to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.

"Work will be carried out in stages and, according to specialists' preliminary estimate, will take several days, up to a week," Interfax quoted Urktelecom as saying.

If or when access to the targeted sites ceases, experts say it will be easy to skirt the block, as virtual private networks (VPNs) are readily available in Ukraine.

Not skipping a beat, VK sent Ukrainian users a message late on May 16 with a link to instructions on how to use such tools to circumvent the block.

"We love our Ukrainian users and want you to always stay in touch with friends and family," the company said.

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