This article was originally published by Coda Story.
By Isobel Koshiw
The Ukrainian government has descended to the Kremlin’s level with its decision to censor Russian-owned social networks and websites, according to human rights advocates.
Services such as Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, as well as the popular Yandex search engine have been targeted as part of a Ukrainian cyberspace-blitzkrieg on Russian-controlled content. The order, signed by the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, has caused chaos, even barring a widely-used Russian accounting program.
Officials in Kiev say the restrictions are needed to fight Russia’s propaganda machine and to prevent its security services from spying on the millions of Ukrainians who use Russian-owned sites.
But by resorting to internet censorship, Kiev is “emulating Russia’s repression,” says Kenneth Roth of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch in a Twitter post.
The Ukrainian government maintains it had to take tougher measures because of concerns that the Kremlin is expanding hacking and other information-war activities worldwide. It is a reversal of past policy.
While it barred Russian television broadcasts several years ago—since the Kremlin first began stirring up the conflict in eastern Ukraine—President Poroshenko and his officials had been trying to use Russian-controlled sites to get their message out. It was hard to ignore them, as almost 80 percent of Ukrainian internet users are signed up to Vkontakte. Odnoklassniki is Ukraine’s second most popular social network after Vkontakte.
Both sites, though, belong to Mail.ru, which is owned by the Kremlin-friendly oligarch Alisher Usmanov. Vkontakte’s founder, Pavel Durov, sold his last shares in 2014 after losing a battle with the Russian security services over access to the accounts of Euromaidan protesters using the site.
Now, though, Poroshenko says he is logging off, ordering the nearly 21 million Ukrainian users of those two sites to do likewise. In what he called his last Vkontakte post, he said: “With the global scale of Russia’s cyber attacks, including in the recent French elections, the time has come to take more decisive action.”
But it puts Ukraine into a select club, along with China, Turkey, and Russia, that bans certain social networking sites. The blocked sites were added to a list of hundreds of companies and individuals already banned by Ukraine in sanctions, which were renewed by Ukraine’s National Security Council in April.
The secretary of the council, Oleksandr Turchynov, said social networking sites had been included because the Russian security services were using them to collect information illegally.
“These sites are even being used as recruitment networks for Russian security services and many other related problems,” Turchynov said.
Announced with little warning, the internet ban has sparked widespread disruption and criticism. An estimated 80 percent of Ukrainian companies use a Russian accounting program called 1C that is now officially off limits. And the Yandex search engine is Ukraine’s second most popular after Google.
Maksym Stepenko, who runs a Vkontakte group called “NoModels” that relies on traffic-based advertising, told Coda that the ban could “destroy” his Ukrainian market, which makes up nearly a third of his 280,000 followers.
The ban could also have deadly consequences in eastern Ukraine, according to Bellingcat journalist Aric Toler, who said on Twitter that both residents and the authorities rely on Vkontakte posts to disseminate the latest reports on the fighting.
Journalist-turned-lawmaker Mustafa Nayyem wrote on Facebook that the ban won’t work. “Such measures in the fight against propaganda only benefit the enemy,” Nayyem wrote, noting that in separatist-controlled territories media outlets are already mostly under Russian or separatist control.
“We’re talking about our citizens, our GDP, employment, and the most important part of the economy—medium and small businesses that can’t afford to develop their own software.”
Nayyem’s parliamentary ally, Svitlana Zalishchuk, accused the president of using the ban to deflect attention from his failure to prosecute the allies of former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych. It does nothing, she said, to counter lawmakers who spread pro-Kremlin messages from the protection of Ukraine’s parliament.
In any case, pro-Kremlin voices will increasingly move to Facebook, predicted Artur Orujaliyev, founder of a tech news website called of Ain.ua. “I wouldn’t be surprised if soon the authorities want to block Facebook too,” Orujaliyev told the Ukrainian Media Network.
It is hard to cut off access entirely—and some Russian sites are still accessible through Kyiv Star and Volia, two of Ukraine’s largest internet providers.
As news of the ban made headlines, Vkontakte sent its Ukrainian users a link to a website where they could download their account information and a message saying,“We love our Ukrainians users and want you to always stay connected with your friends and loved ones.”
The Ukrainian authorities intentionally gave no warning in order to avoid retaliatory Russian cyber attacks and for an “element of surprise,” said Valentin Petrov of Ukraine’s National Security Council to Hromadske TV.
But then, just hours after Poroshenko signed the decree, his office reported a cyber-attack on his website, using Vkontakte and Yandex.
Isobel Koshiw is a Kiev-based freelance journalist writing about politics, business, and the war.
[Image by Coda Story]