Wholesale Blocking of Internet Platforms in Ukraine is ‘Unprecedented’
NEW YORK—By blocking popular Russian social networks, email service, and search engines, Ukrainian officials are undercutting the free expression rights of their people and borrowing from the playbook of authoritarians, PEN America said in a statement.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko posted a decree on May 15 expanding sanctions against Russian companies in response to Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and Moscow’s backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine. Among the companies targeted are the Russian social networks VK (VKontakte) and Odnoklassniki, the email service Mail.ru, and the search engine company Yandex. The decree requires Ukrainian internet providers to block access to the sites for three years. All are among the most widely used social media and communications platforms in Ukraine, according to digital analytics company Alexa.
Poroshenko commented on his decision on his own official VK page, commenting that he had used the page to “to influence opponents and counter propaganda.” Referencing recent cyberattacks, including recent allegations of Russian interference in the election campaign in France, the Ukrainian president renounced the notion of trying to persuade audiences via the social media platform, saying “it’s time to act differently and more decisively.”
“Wholescale blocking of the most popular internet platforms is unprecedented for a European country and raises grave fears regarding the future of free expression in Ukraine,’’ said PEN America Free Expression Manager for Eurasia Polina Kovaleva. “While geopolitical frustrations and the spread of propaganda may be valid concerns, they don’t justify draconian measures that would deprive all Ukrainians of online media platforms that are used enrich and inform so many aspects of daily life.”
The new decree was met with concern in Ukraine. Maxim Butkevych of The No Borders Project told PEN America that “by introducing this new decree, the Ukraine government copies iniquitous practices of the country it is at war with.” Olexandra Matviychuk of Center for Civil Liberties agreed that subversive activities of Russian special services in social media should be legally confronted but argues that the new decree can be considered legal without any adjudication. “It is silly to so easily give up freedoms that we were all fighting for on Maidan,” she adds. However, it also engendered a degree of support. For example, Sergiy Zeitz of Regional Center for Human Rights, on the other hand, believes that a legal basis for the decree exists but he still blames government that the reasons behind the decree were not explained to the public and it was signed abruptly.
The degree was effective immediately, but Ukrainian companies indicated it will take some days to accommodate the changes and email users shift their addresses.
The undercutting of Ukrainians’ digital rights is not the only dramatic consequence of the new presidential decree. The sanctions are expected to have repercussions for employment in Ukraine as services ranging from weather forecasting to taxi transport will be forced to shift platforms or close, and companies are being forced to find new accounting software. Meanwhile, instructions for circumventing the sanctions began to appear on Ukrainian websites almost immediately after publication of the decree.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression at home and abroad. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.
CONTACT: Sarah Edkins, Director of Communications, [email protected], +1.646.779.4830