The Ukrainian president’s choice to block Vkontakte, Odnoklassiki and Mail.ru goes against the Internet freedom and raised many protests among the experts. But does it make sense?
The ban was issued on May 16 by presidential decree. But Poroshenko himself gave the news on his Vkontakte profile. The paradox is all here. Because it is true that Russian hybrid war goes through the social networks and the army of trolls paid by the Kremlin. But it is equally true that Runet – as it is called the Russian web sphere, a world with its search engines and its social networks – is a reality that goes beyond national boundaries and links Russian-speaking communities inside and outside the Federation. And that could even build a bridge between Ukraine and Russia.
There are about 12 million Ukrainians every month on Vkontakte, and 5 million on Odnoklassiki, according to the Uacrisis website. Not to mention those who have a mailbox with Mail.ru and those who every day – for a reason or another, even just the freedom to do it – choose Yandex (the “Russian Google”) services, from the search engine to the maps , to online translations. That’s why Poroshenko wrote about his decree right on Vkontakte. Announcing, at the same time, that his profile will be closed.
Not all Ukrainians cheered Poroshenko’s decree. According to a survey by Internews, 43% of Ukrainians are willing to accept limitations of their online freedom in exchange for the security of their country. Nonetheless, 35% of respondents believe that restrictions should not be imposed by any means.
The harshest criticisms came from Internet and communications experts. ” We are turning to Russia, except we have no oil,” said the philosopher Mihayl Minakov. While Vitalii Moroz, head of the Internews agency, wrote that “This will be a significant blow to Internet freedom in Ukraine, and the country will deteriorate significantly its rating in the eyes of the international community”.
Indeed, Ukraine is now in good company with other countries where the Internet is under censorship, like China, Syria, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia.
And here comes the other paradox of this whole story. Because Russia itself – the target of the measure – does not currently have any form of censorship on the web. Ukraine is due to fall far below Russia on the Internet Freedom Index.
Now, many wonder what these millions of users will do, after they lose access to this big part of the web, all in an sudden.
There are, of course, many ways to bypass the block, from VPNs to the Tor browser. Not really anything difficult to use, but at the same time not for all.
In addition, someone immediately noted that Ukraine does not even have the infrastructure needed to prevent access to blocked sites locally. To do so, it would need a pervasive censorship like the Chinese Great Firewall. If it was true, the decree would be inapplicable. Adding to the injury of a measure that wasn’t needed, the insult of having no effect on the information war with Russia.