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Banning Russian Online Services: Pros And Cons
21 May, 2017

The President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, has signed a decree, which obliges Ukrainian internet providers to block access to Russian social media websites. It sparked debates in Ukrainian society and even among the international community as to whether this move was justified or not. Earlier we spoke to experts to gather their opinions on how efficient the ban is. These Guests include Matthew Schaaf, Project Director at Freedom House Ukraine, Vitallii Moroz, Head of New Media at Internews Ukraine, Svitlana Matviyenko, media and information war researcher and Iryna Borogan, independent Russian journalist and author of “The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries”.

In the studio, Hromadske also spoke to Artem Bidenko, State Secretary of the Ministry of Information Policy of Ukraine, and Maksym Tulyev, board member at the Ukrainian Internet Association, about how and why these sanctions have been enforced and what it means for Ukrainian society.

Photo credit: Andriy Kulykov in the studio/ Hromadske

I suspect you both have conflicting views on the issues. What is your overall evaluation of the President’s decision to sign this decree?

Artem Bidenko: For our ministry, this decision does not include any conflict because we don’t see the world as black and white. We understand that there is a very thin border between censorship and information security and national security. Today, for us, the challenge is not to quarrel about whether this ban is needed or not. For us, it is understood that this is absolutely normal to ban resources which help the Russian FSB control Ukrainian citizens.

What about the American CIA?

Artem Bidenko: There is no real evidence that social networks like Facebook are controlled by the CIA.

Photo credit: Artem Bidenko in the studio/ Hromadske

But there was an allegation published recently that the FSB, at least, tried to influence the Brexit campaign and Trump’s presidential campaign via Facebook.

Artem Bidenko: That is a very good case because, in today’s or yesterday’s Washington Post, there was an opinions article about what measures Facebook will [take] to avoid control, and also to avoid being an informational weapon. A lot was written about the French elections, the American elections, and Facebook shows that it is open and transparent when making decisions that help to not overstep this thin border between censorship, influence and security.

Has the Ukrainian government addressed the social networks and the other companies mentioned in the sanctions list in terms of trying to do something like what Facebook does, for example?

Artem Bidenko: Our Ministry wrote a letter in February of this year, to VKontakte - I don’t think we wrote to Odnoklassniki - asking them to close [accounts] of separatists, and we got no answer. Vice versa, we have contact with Facebook -  the previous week, our Deputy Minister went to a big conference, where again, he met with the Central European director and they had a very good conversation about what should be done for Facebook to be more transparent and less influential [in terms of] the separatist pro-Russian groups.

Maksym Tulyev, what’s your organisation’s take, or maybe even your own personal take on the situation?

Maksym Tulyev: My own personal take - I would bet one hundred dollars that Facebook will banned in one year in Ukraine. The big problem is not the ban on Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki - I believe it’s generally a good idea - but how it can be done.  When we ban the first website in Ukraine, we are opening a big can of worms. The price of this block is much higher than the effect it can reach. At first, we have to build censorship infrastructure - all operators and providers in Ukraine should buy the some equipment, install it, set it up, begin to interact with some kind of Roskomnadzor company - I think it will be [the Ministry of Information Policy of Ukraine ] - and after that, after maybe one year, it will work as expected.

Photo credit: Maksym Tulyev in the studio/ Hromadske

So, right now, several internet and telecom operators in Ukraine have banned VKontakte and Mail.ru just by blocking the network ranges of these companies. So, a lot of websites, a lot of web-projects, that are not on the sanctions list have been banned. To make a precision ban, there is equipment, there is infrastructure, there is interaction with the government agencies, so what we have in Russia. I believe it’s not a good idea to give this instrument to Ukrainian government personnel that we know are very clean and very honest, there is no corruption, no protectionism, so it’s a very good idea to give them this instrument.

Have you discussed the controversial decree on social networks?

Artem Bidenko: The discussion began in December last year.

For you personally?

Artem Bidenko: Yes, for us, personally also because a group of members of parliament suggested 2 or 3 law drafts on such a ban and it was even a public discussion by these members of parliament, and even some quarrelling between opponents of this idea and those who were for this idea. In February, even our Ministry interfered in these quarrels, for us, there was a discussion and we saw numbers that around 75% of people in the country- this is not a sociological survey -were for such a ban, but they were against censorship.

These were people who use social networks?

Artem Bidenko: Sure, mostly in social media. But these people were also against censorship, and we should understand that there is a huge difference between what is done in Russia or China, for example, and what is done in Ukraine, which has a lot the same as what they have in Canada or Germany, for example.

So it’s normal in abnormal situations?

Maksym Tulyev: Of course I disagree with you. In the United States, the network neutrality is the primary freedom of network. Even in Israel, which is a country [carrying out] a war and anti-terrorist operations, every time, from the founding of this country, freedom of internet has been one of the basic things and they deny banning any website technically. OK, there is a responsibility for illegal activity on the web when there is no technical possibility, no equipment, no infrastructure to ban any websites by network operators.

Photo credit: Andriy Kulykov and Maksym Tulyev in the studio/ Hromadske

I would like to comment on how this ban is legal. First of all, the Defence Council that issued this ban, by the article 10 of the law on this council, this decision is only mandatory for state structures, not for private [entities] or commercial [entities], as most of the internet operators and providers are. Secondly, by a lot of other laws, any ban can only be [made] based on court decisions, which has not been done now. The problem is, this illegal decision is, in fact, implemented because most of all the main telecom operators have already banned these resources. For me, it means only one thing - we should take a screwdriver, go to Bankova street to the famous building, screw out the plate with ‘President of Ukraine’, and screw is a new plate [that says] ‘Tsar’, because the illegal decision has, in fact, been implemented.

Artem Bidenko: That is a manipulation of facts, because censorship is the banning and blocking of content and the decision from the National Security and Defence Council does not block content, you can read [about] the opposition and critics anywhere, we can watch it on TV. The resources which are a threat to national security are banned. These resources are owned by a country which kills Ukrainian citizens. That’s the problem in this discussion because the manipulation is towards the question of censorship and we are trying to show this thin border and the challenge today is also, not to go further, but to stop and understand what the difference between sites and resources, and words, articles, discussions. That is the challenge today, not quarrelling about whether we need this ban or not. We do need to stop the Russian information attack on Ukraine. How can we do this if we don’t stop the most popular resources in Ukraine. Another argument is that these are economic sanctions. You said that all these sites are in the top 10 Ukrainian websites. Why don’t we help some Ukrainian companies be at the top, get the money from internet advertising, and so on? Why give this money to Russians? Can you tell me?

Photo credit: Andriy Kulykov and Artem Bidenko in the studio/ Hromadske

Maksym Tulyev: The question was and is, why didn’t you do this the legal way, by court decisions, by the law?

I presume you mean the state structures, not Mr. Bidenko’s ministry because they have not played a part in this, am I right?

Artem Bidenko: Yes.

Maksym Tulyev: Well the government of course. There is a legal way, it is possible to do this in a legal way but it was done in a criminal. Illegal way. Why?

Artem Bidenko: This is the legal way because right after the decision of the Council, the officials, government bodies, will suggest draft laws of the documents which have implemented this decision. But, there are no threats to providers or citizens who overcome this ban, for example.

Maksym Tulyev: Right now, the illegal decree of the [National Security and Defence Council], is in fact, implemented.

Artem Bidenko: Your words will be true after you show me the first fine for not doing this.

Do you think that an appeal to Ukrainian users to stop using the ‘bad’ social networks like Odnoklassniki would be more effective than this attempt to ban it?

Artem Bidenko: Unfortunately, no. Three years ago there was such an appeal, lots of appeals from different public leaders, and we saw that these social networks are very popular. Moreover, we had two decrees which banned officials from using Mail.ru and we still had a lot of officials, especially in regions that had Mail.ru and Yandex.ru email [accounts]. So this was the only way to solve the situation.

Photo credit: Andriy Kulykov (centre), Maksym Tulyev (left) and Artem Bidenko (right) in the studio/ Hromadske

Maksym Tulyev: How were these officials punished for using Mail.ru email accounts?

Artem Bidenko: You can’t punish people from using them in their private lives. That’s democracy.

Maksym Tulyev: But they use them at work. My company got a request from the cyber police in Dnipropetrovsk, for example, who were writing from a Mail.ru account.

That is what Mr. Bidenko said. Back to my original question about appealing to Ukrainians.

Maksym Tulyev: Yes, I believe it is possible, not just a statement from the Ukrainian government, it should be a big advertising company, there should be good alternatives. It’s a big process, it costs money, of course.

Read more: 5 Facts To Know About The Russian Websites Ban in Ukraine