It is exactly one year since Ukrainian society faced the news that President Poroshenko had signed a decree banning some of their favorite Russia-based social media sites.
The ban affected three of Ukraine’s then top five sites – search engine Yandex, and social media sites Odnoklassniki and VKontakte (VK.)
The reasons behind the ban is Russia’s increasingly aggressive hybrid warfare. In his farewell post on Odnoklassniki and VK, the President wrote:
“The hybrid war requires appropriate responses to the challenges [it poses]… The Russian Federation’s mass cyber attacks throughout the whole world, in particular the recent interference in the French election campaign, indicate that it is time to act differently and more efficiently.”
The ban divided public and expert opinion. For some, it was a positive step towards countering Russia’s information war. For others, it was censorship – an infringement on internet-users’ rights and freedoms that mirrored the methods of the country Ukraine was hoping to counter.
Hromadske spoke to Head of New Media at NGO Internews Ukraine Vitaliy Moroz to find out what has changed since the ban, how the public has adapted to the loss of popular social networks and to what extent it has furthered Ukraine’s efforts to combat Russian aggression.
Despite initial concerns, the Ukrainian public seem to have adapted to the ban. Many users abandoned the Russian sites and moved to globally popular alternatives, such as Facebook and Instagram.
It’s these tech giants that Moroz refers to as the real “winners” in this situation. In May 2017, there were around six-seven million Facebook users in Ukraine, but after only a couple of months into the ban, this figure rose to ten million.
Photo credit: EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
VK users, on the other hand, declined by up to 13%.
Alternatively, tech-savvy social media users in Ukraine have used VPN technology to circumvent the blocks and access the sites. In fact, these sites are still largely accessible, according to Moroz.
But for many Ukrainian users, whether or not they continue to access Russian sites is not a question of technology. Moroz says that the perception of these Russian websites is changing in Ukraine. In other words, it’s no longer “cool” to use Russian social networks.
“Ukrainian users do have access to them, they still use VPN anonymizers, but there is a perception that something is wrong with Russian websites,” Moroz adds.
Countering the Russian Threat
Ultimately, the goal of the ban was to counter the threat of Russia’s information warfare and strengthen Ukraine’s position in this fight.
The head of the Ukraine’s Security and Defense Council Oleksandr Turchynov announced at the time that the block, initiated by the Ukrainian Security Service, was intended to combat the proliferation of pirated internet content and provide the opportunity for alternative Ukraine-based companies to thrive.
Photo credit: EPA-EFE/SERGEI ILNITSKY
However, as previously stated, it was the American companies that seemingly gained the most out the ban, with many users switching to more internationally mainstream platforms.
Moreover, there was hope that the ban may have had an economic impact on Russia. Social media companies generate a large amount of their profit from advertising, therefore, by banning these sites, Ukrainian companies would no longer be paying Russian social media sites for advertising space, resulting in financial losses for Russian companies.
Photo credit: EPA/TATYANA ZENKOVICH
But this was not the case. Moroz asserts that, while Ukraine is no longer paying millions of dollars to Russian companies – especially during times of active conflict – Russian tech companies are still on the rise and “have quite good profits and the losses which Russia had in Ukraine are not significant to the overall income which they receive.”
Nevertheless, even though website bans are not 100% foolproof, as many people are still able to access the sites, Moroz believes the real strategic importance of the ban was the symbol of defiance it projected.
“Blocking sites are not effective generally, but still, since we are in an information warfare, the governments send a signal to Ukrainians that we should fight like Russia on different fronts,” Moroz told Hromadske.
Internet Freedom and Regulation
Perhaps the broader question in the debate over the Russian social network ban is the impact on internet freedom.
But as Moroz puts it: “Were the users' rights were violated with this decree? Yes, they were violated. But was this decision strategically right or wrong? I would say that it is strategically right,” adding that, “there are no violations of freedom of speech online because mostly blocking Russian social networks was more of the strategic response to information warfare.”
Photo credit: EPA/MAXIM SHIPENKOV
After all, the sites are still accessible and, as Moroz explains, Ukrainian civil society played an important role in “slowing down” the government’s efforts to impose internet restrictions on its population.
However, it does still raise the question of how much further the Ukrainian government will go to regulate the internet. Moroz describes last year’s ban as “the first visible step of regulations of the internet in Ukraine.”
In this regard, Moroz warns against following in the footsteps of Russia and China, where the government controls the internet to the point of allout censorship and freedom of speech violations. Most recently, Russia banned messenger service Telegram after the company refused to give up encryption keys to the Russian security service, which would have allowed them access to service-users’ personal data.
“Regulation of the Internet is a global trend and Ukraine can't avoid it.The key issue is: whose example are we following? The example of the developed world or the example of Russia and China?” Moroz says.
The answer to this may lie with industry, civil society and their ability to self- and co-regulate potential cyber security threats.
“Internet providers realize that there are some risks to the security of the country. So, I would say that the general move in the regulation of internet should be less government and more industry and civil society,” Moroz comments.
/Interview by Anastasiia Machuska
/Text by Sofia Fedeczko