Ukrainian officials seek to ban user access to a number of Russian web addresses. Critics fear that censorship here will lead to further internet restrictions down the road.
Strange role models lead to strange behavior
Since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, relations between Ukraine and Russia have been understandably tense. Despite that drama, Ukrainian politicians are emulating their Russian counterparts. Recent efforts to censor Russian websites and online services and an increase in domestic surveillance come with the bite of irony.
Ukrainian NGO’s have expressed misgivings about recent regulations. Regulations will allow ISPs the ability to block Russian sites. This resolution specifically targets sites that the Russians themselves call illegal. NGO’s say that the scope of this resolution is wider than it needs to be, and the Association of Ukraine has argued that the move could lead to further censorship. Olesksandr Fediyenko, of that organization, specifically notes that this regulation could also affect legitimate resources. He sees the proposition as a slippery slope, opening the door for government officials to restrict any and all sites.
Proponents of the censorship strategy laud its viability as an inexpensive means of protection. They, of course, gloss over the act that cheap censorship does not equal necessary or appropriate censorship.
Treading in Russian footsteps
The State Commission on Communications and the Ukrainian Security Service are slated to receive UAH 3.5 million (or $130,000) if the proposals go through. One section of the drafted legislation allows for expanded internet surveillance technology. The section proposes that regulators and security services should be granted the power to enforce and police internet censorship. This oversight would be facilitated by installing special equipment for scanning and checking Ukrainian ISPs. The goal would be to ensure that ISPs were indeed blocking suggested content. Another section of the draft pertains to political campaigns.
Critics see big problems with these tactics. Once the special equipment is in use, there is no telling the full consequences. Fifteen NGOs have made clear that they are concerned about illegal surveillance and documentation pertaining to the habits of innocent citizens. They contend that any step toward a censorship state is a step too far in the direction of their Russian neighbors. Russia is known for surveilling and blocking the online activities of citizens in and effort to control information.
President Poroshenko, Russian Propaganda
When President Petro Poroshenko mandated that a number of Russian websites be blocked from Ukrainian distribution, agencies scrambled to comply. Nine months later, industry and regulators have been working to enact the censorship system. Sites on the blacklist include VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, and Mail.ru., in addition to many popular social media sites and TV channels.
It is presumed that Poroshenko seeks to censor these sources because they are teeming with anti-Ukrainian propaganda. The Putin regime has been attempting to win Ukrainian hearts and minds. The propaganda is an effort to destabilize faith in the Ukrainian government. Some critics feel that blocking these websites does not solve the issue. They say that propaganda will find a way to citizens regardless. Once these sites are blocked, the information flow will shift to other sites.
Where there is a will, there’s a way
Whether the information flows shift or not is largely meaningless. Critics also point out that censorship of this kind is easily routed. Users who are interested in visiting blocked sites can do so by simply signing up for a free VPN. VPNs will allow users to access a foreign server and surf the web from outside Ukraine. Banning VPNs would solve this workaround, but others have tried this without success. It is not reasonable to think that Ukraine would attempt this strategy. Currently, most popular VPNs are available and in use in Ukraine, including IPVanish and ExpressVPN. Despite any effort to block Russian propaganda through censorship, those who wish to view it will get around the blocks. In the future-possible event that Ukraine seeks to expand censorship even further, citizens will likely disregard the attempts and information control.