The ban on Russian internetsites in Ukraine is useless, counterproductive and ineffective. It threatens to push the country in a more authoritarian direction. These are Putinist methods, argues political analyst Kostiantyn Fedorenko from Kiev. 'Europe harshly criticized internet limitations in Turkey; it should be as harsh towards Ukraine.'
Ukrainian cartoon on the ban of Russian internet: Oops, how to get back to the Homepage?
In Ukrainian society there is a broad consensus that Russia is supporting the separatist armed forces in the east of Ukraine. For that reason economic sanctions against Russia generally do not cause any debate. But the presidential decree of May 17 with a list of new legal entities that will be prohibited in Ukraine is different.
It hits at developers of popular software products, such as Kaspersky antivirus or 1C. But people are mostly affected by the banning of several popular Russian web companies and an order for Internet service providers to prohibit access to websites like social networks VKontakte (VK.com) and Odnoklassniki (class mates), e-mail service Mail.ru and Yandex, a search engine that also provides money transfer, mapping and several other popular services.
All of these sites are in the top-6 of most visited in Ukraine. An average daily share for VK is 53% of all Ukrainian web users; after Google it is the second most popular resource in Ukraine (only 19% of the web audience in Ukraine uses Facebook on a daily basis).
The public outcry, therefore, comes as no surprise. Opponents of the ban called the decision a violation of freedom of speech and information; there were minor protest rallies and petitions. Dmytro Likhachev, a lawyer from Kharkiv, wants to fight the ban at the European Court of Human Rights. Organizations like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House have also voiced their concerns.
Supporters of the ban stress the need for internet security against both Russian propaganda and the Russian security services – the latter, for instance, have broad access to VK user data. Activists who support the Ukrainian military, and who have lobbied the ban, claim that data leaks from these services on several occasions have damaged the activities of the Ukrainian army, which resulted in human casualties. While Ukraine is at war, its security should prevail above protection of freedom of information. However, the lobbyists don’t pay attention to the proportionality of the measures.
For more than a week now the ban still is one of the most popular topics on Facebook – and in the prohibited networks themselves. According to SimilarWeb (published by Evropeis’ka Pravda) the number of non-unique daily pageviews of VK, Odnoklassniki and Yandex by Ukrainian users dropped only by a third. Some of the internet providers have not yet blocked the sites, and lots of Ukrainians are getting acquainted with terms such as ‘VPN’ or ‘proxy’. Both Odnoklassniki and VK instructed their users how to bypass the ban. The Yandex browser application for mobiles has incorporated VPN to enable the use of banned pages. Mail.ru offers a new desktop browser to circumvent the ban. Applications for social networks will follow.
Lots of Ukrainian users will adopt these remedies in the same ways as people from countries like Iran do, where approximately 69% of young people use VPNs on a regular basis. As the administrator of several of the largest groups for alternative youth at VK stated in a private talk, the number of daily hits by users from Ukraine stayed almost the same. If the bulk of the users keeps using the banned services, the rationale behind the bill disappears: protection against data leaks will not grow.
Is it likely, then, that the ban will at least help Ukraine avoid the pro-Russian, pro-separatist propaganda? Hardly so. Most users of the banned services used them mostly for entertainment purposes. Russian propaganda, in reality, reaches only a very limited part of the Ukrainian audience. Out of 2.1 million subscribers of RIA Novosti page on VK, only 69.000 came from Ukraine; out of 1.7 million subscribers to Russia’s First tv-Channel only 28.000.
Even at VK pages that are dedicated either to the Anti-Maidan or to the separatist movement in Ukraine, illustratively, most users do not come from Ukraine itself. Reports from ‘Novorossiya insurgence’ and ‘Anti-Maidan’, the two largest groups that cover these topics, boast 0.5 million users each. Yet in both cases, only approximately 150 thousand come from Ukraine – and it is highly likely that many of these users are members of both groups. Besides that these pages immediately published instructions on how to bypass the ban, so it is likely that consumers of this propaganda will stay on VK.
Even if a user decides to switch to Facebook, there is no reason to expect a magical conversion of his worldviews. As recent global developments, in particular around the US presidential campaign, have shown, people tend to build information bubbles according to their own views. There are definitely enough pro-Russian pages and users on Facebook to pick your own bubble. Finally, more subtle forms of Russian propaganda, dressed up as criticism of the Ukrainian government by alleged patriots of Ukraine, do exist. And there is no reason why they cannot use Facebook as well.
One goal Ukraine could reach is causing financial damage to Russian providers. They will definitely suffer from the decrease of advertisement revenues. VPN users are identified as visitors from foreign countries; therefore, targeting Ukrainian users will become more complicated. Some businesses that operate in the Ukrainian market will consequently switch from targeted advertisement at the banned platforms to alternative forms of reaching out to their clients.
However, if the intention was to damage Russian companies, the Ukrainian ban is likely to backfire. Ukrainian small and middle-range businesses often used the banned platforms to advertise their goods. Many others used Yandex. Money for payments, or incorporated other Yandex services into their own web pages. Ukrainian artists used VK as a promotion tool – many think it is a better platform than Facebook.
Ukrainian business owners are already complaining that they will suffer massive financial damages due to the ban; some will cut employees, others will leave the Ukrainian market to target Russia instead. ‘As usual, our government did not think of small and mid-range business,’ says one of them.
The situation feels so absurd that even an evident joke post by a pro-government blogger – claiming that search bots would index any post-ban user activity in the banned social networks and that violators will be persecuted – was quoted as a fact by some media both in Ukraine and Russia.
Nobody expected that this ban would ever become anything more than an outrageous idea. Yet here it is: a reality that will hit Ukrainian businesses and end users alike, while hardly solving its security-related issues. A reality that looks like a scary reminiscence of early Putin times in Russia: many Ukrainians appeared too happy to exchange the individual freedoms of their compatriots for security. They develop a derogatory point of vue on liberals and international human rights ngo’s – and in a macabre way their vocabulary is directly copied from that of Russian nationalists.
Of course, Ukraine has a legitimate reason to be concerned about its security. However, if Russia’s own example taught us anything, it is that a social contract in which society trades its freedoms for security reasons doesnot end well. If society agrees to such limitations for some collective goal, more and more limitations will be imposed under the flag of fighting a foreign threat.
Therefore, this new reality must be stopped now – until it is too late. Ukraine’s international partners must unequivocally condemn the ban as an unacceptable violation of the freedom of information. Europe harshly criticized internet limitations in Turkey; it should be as harsh towards Ukraine.